Quel déclin, au juste?

Quel déclin, au juste?
Montreal, in the before times. Not especially French.

The Spring of 2024 Decline-of-the-French-Language Crisis having abated somewhat since its dramatic height of (checks notes) nearly ten days ago, now seems like a good time to open a few crusty windows and air out this debate some.

You can always tell when a Quebec government is in political trouble because they reach for that old faithful, fear of mass anglicization and a strong – I mean, herculean – determination to nip this egregious blister of a plague in the bud.

Yes, I’m suffering from a particularly ugly case of metaphoritis.

The CAQ government of François Legault has been floundering since its surprise (to itself, at any rate) defeat in last year’s by-election in the Quebec City riding of Jean-Talon. And since last fall the CAQ has been wildly waving its arms this way and that trying to regain control of the narrative and the amazing thing is, it ain’t working.

Quick, a language crisis in which to fight!

Le sigh.

One of the biggest problems when it comes to performative panic attacks over the state of the French language in North America is we never quite take the time to define things. For instance, how do you calculate a decline in the use of the French language? There are stats on language spoken at home. There are also stats on language spoken in public spaces or at work. There are stats on many things, and with just a little bit of a twist you can make those stats say… many different things. But mostly politicians in trouble don’t bother with numbers or definitions. They go straight to fear. And caricatures like the ladies of Eaton’s (I know; I’m showing my age with that apostrophe) or that infamous “bonjour-hi” that is very rightly being shown the way out, thanks a lot.

To be clear, I am 100% against the anglicization of Quebec (I’m cool with bilingualism, tho). There are laws in place to prevent the former, and very little public support for the latter, which is something I can fight another time. And in case laws alone aren’t enough to prevent mass anglicization, there are also millions of French-speaking Quebecers (aided and abetted by another million or so francos who live elsewhere in Canada plus a not-insignificant chunk of the US population that would keenly describe itself as francophile) to stop that blight dead in its rusty tracks.

The fact that there is a bloc of folks on this continent who live, work, love and play entirely in French adds to the richness of the place, and there is a part of me that wants francophone Quebecers to understand they have more allies than they realize in that surounding sea of anglos. What exactly would that allyship be worth in a real crisis I don’t know. But I’ve travelled extensively on this continent and everywhere I hear the same admiration for the strength of this remarkable minority that just won’t give up. Anti-Quebec/anti-French sentiment also exists (like, say, this), but those people are typically not brave enough to say it to my face. Make of that what you will.

I have often been accused of being a tad insouciant, or worse, on this file, and not just because I mostly live and work in English, in Ottawa to boot. (Sorry, eh.) I was like that before I left the province I’d lived in for 30 years, more than two decades ago. (What the hell, I already aged myself.)

I have always said, and I maintain, that the best way to defend, protect and promote the French language is to love it enough to speak and write it properly. More or less, you know? Something I endeavour to do on a daily basis, in addition to writing books en français. I am doing my bit, dammit.

And yes, laws that ensure Quebec’s public spaces are predominantly French also help, as you’d know if you compared the streetscape of downtown Montreal today with what it looked like in, say, 1965. Or the mid-1930s as the photo at the top of this page shows. Amuse yourself googling, just for fun. It won’t take you long to catch my drift.

And then there’s actual hard data. Including a new collection of well-researched essays on the question showing that while there’s no denying the perenially-precarious state of the French language and culture in North America, there is also no reason to panic. Almost virtually every person who lives in Quebec (94%, according to the 2021 census) says they can hold a conversation in French. Almost half of Quebecers only speak French and the percentage of Quebecers who only speak English is dropping, hovering at a little over 5%.

A recent report from the Office québécois de la langue française shows the vast majority of people in Quebec (90%) primarily use French in public spaces. Those numbers are significantly lower in Montreal (60%) and Gatineau (63%) but overall the use of French in public spaces has not declined over the years, says the OQLF.

Where there is a documented decline is in the number of people whose “mother tongue” is French. But before you hit the blinking red alert button, you have to understand that mother tongue is StatsCanSpeak for the first language learned at home and still understood.

Take a minute and read that again. Ready to proceed?

Take the case of Ahmed, proud francophone Québécois, who learned Arabic as a baby. He goes to school entirely in French and spends most of his life outside the home in French but at home with his mama he speaks Arabic. He contributes to a drop in the number of Quebecers whose mother tongue is French even though he almost exclusively lives in French.

How is Ahmed a threat to the French language? You won’t find a politician with enough fortitude to handle that nuanced debate. They’re too busy using people’s fears as a political tool, which does nothing to ensure the survival of anyone’s cherished culture.

Eternal vigilance is one thing and I’m for it. Including making sure immigration to Canada doesn’t result in francophone Quebec losing demographic weight inside the country. I don’t know what the best way to do that is, but I understand its importance.

It’s doing the issue and its genuine challenges a tremendous disservice to allow politicians to get away with intellectually dishonest performative panic attacks. I’ll be as predictable as they are in denouncing them.