The school board’s chairperson, Diane De Courcy, promises, “There will be no language police. If they are automatically switching to another language, the monitor will gently tap them on the shoulder to tell them, ‘Remember, we speak French. It’s good for you.’” There is no mention of what happens if the first tap doesn’t work. (We can also forgive a non-native English speaker for using “they” and “them” as singular pronouns, seeming to imply that some group of people shares a single collective shoulder.)
It is true that many such quibbles between Anglophones and Francophones in Canada are tempests in teapots. Anglophones have been known to get their knickers in a twist over the severe imposition of having French writing on the backs of their cereal boxes (or, as they are known in French, des faces avant des paquets de céréale). And it is true that single-language schools are nothing unusual in the world—even in the “free world” (a phrase which for many Anglophone Canadians means all of the modern industrialized democracies minus Quebec). After all, immigrants tend to want to acquire their new homeland’s language, and throughout Anglophone Canada there are French-immersion schools with precisely the rules Montreal has only just now instituted.
But Quebec’s public immersion schools are not voluntary. Plus, the 53% of Montreal’s public-school students whose first language is not French are not all immigrants, and their first languages are not all Vietnamese, Arabic, or Spanish. In fact, about 7.7% of Quebec’s population is native English speaking, and 10.4% speak mostly English at home. In Montreal, the figures are higher: there, 13.2% call English their first language. (These figures are from Canada’s 2006 census.) Nor is that 13.2% all carpetbaggers from Ontario or Pennsylvania. Thousands of English-speaking Montrealers live in neighborhoods and districts that have been Anglophone for as long as they can remember. There have been English-speakers in Montreal for essentially as long as there have been French-speakers, as is evidenced by institutions such as McGill University.
Canada’s French-speakers have wrenched more concessions in language policy from their central government than any other linguistic minority in world history (excluding extreme cases such as, say, the Manchu-speaking royal family in imperial China). Mostly by dangling the threat of secession, Francophone Canadians have extended government services in French from their one relatively small area (only the extreme south of one province, truth be told) to every corner of the second-largest country in the world. This includes places—from cowboy ranches in British Columbian scrubland to remote outposts in the howling Arctic—where not a word of French has ever been uttered. And Quebec is the only Canadian province or territory with only one official language. In 1993, in fact, the United Nations Human Rights Commission condemned a draconian provincial law which essentially banned all English signage. (Quebec gave in, but modified the law to require French translations in lettering twice as large. Which means that this scene from the comedy film Canadian Bacon is only a slight exaggeration.)
The Francophone world itself offers chilling counterexamples. Go to France and ask any Breton or Basque of middle age or older—or any Innu or Inuk in northern Quebec, for that matter—about the “gentle taps” received for using his or her mother tongue on the playground.
Of course, everyone in Quebec should know French. Everyone agrees with that. And, with few exceptions, everyone there wants to and does (or, in the case of immigrants, soon will). French in Canada is hardly a threatened or endangered language; it is the opposite. Most Montrealers are proud to live in a bilingual—indeed, multilingual—city in what is arguably the most tolerant and progressive country in the world. Quebec’s schools excel in producing fluent French speakers who almost always command English as well. Those who patrol Montreal’s school playgrounds should be glad to see that there are students who gossip with their friends in the world’s lingua franca and then when the bell rings take their seats and display mastery of their home province’s first language. Sounds to me like Canada at its best. No gentle taps needed.
P.S.: Because I have promised that every blog entry will have at least one map and at least one flag, here is the flag of Montreal. It very inclusively features a fleur de lis to represent the French, a shamrock for the Irish, a thistle for the Scots, and a rose for the English. Note that the fleur de lis gets the pride of place in the upper left. But Anglophones can take heart: a St. George’s Cross presides over the whole operation. Quelle horreur!
[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas. The book, which contains dozens of maps and over 500 flags, is now in the layout phase and should be on shelves, and available on Amazon, by early fall 2014. I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news. Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even though you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook.]