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Franglais spoken ici: enjoying the advantages of living in a distinct society.

Quel dommage! Here and now, I mean. We're a province not so much in crisis as in love with crises, a "politique de crise." The aim of Bill 101, the French Language Charter enacted in 1977, was "francization" -- to make French the "normal and everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business." That aim has been achieved in substance: 88 per cent of all Quebecers work in French, two-thirds of managers are French, and "the historic link between francophone workers and low income is gone" -- according to the Legault-Plourde report on the status of French, March 1996. But the report hinted at something new: "francophonization." English should not only be invisible but inaudible among us.

Antoine Dumas is a Quebec artist and convinced federalist. He has captured our national dilemma in several canvases. Eaux troubles (Troubled Waters, 1990) shows a canoe with British and French captains at either end, half the oarsmen facing one way and half the other. Another from 1990, New Quebecer, casts the modern Canadien as Atlas holding up the world. And one entitled Bilingual Bonus (1981) underscores the availability of literature in both our official languages. Too often, we miss such "bonus" in our wrangling and mutual enmity. Everyone should know Frank R. Scott's marvellous poem "Bonne Entente" on "the advantages of living with two cultures," such as finding a notice in an office building: "This elevator will not run on Ascension Day."

Bilingualism is banned, but we operate in a kind of Franglais (or "Frenglish"). We pass by the boulangerie for a baguette, the depanneur for poutine or the quincaillerie for "les tacks." We shop at La Baie or Club Price. We take the Metro or drive the autoroute. Our youth attend CEGEP (College d'enseignment general et professionnel), perhaps arranging to meet on "le week-end" at the Maison du Steak House. We know how to pronounce St-Joachim and Ste-Hyacinthe, not to mention Royal LePage.

But such charming provincialism misses the essential problem. Language has become so loaded with nationalistic symbols that the continued existence of English is seen as a threat to Quebec integrity and ambition. A sinister example was the banning of matzoh packages just before Passover because the labels were in English only. Montreal is especially vulnerable (distinctly distinct?), existing in tension with Quebec City, to whom our multicultural populace constitutes a challenge to old-stock (pure laine) Quebecoises.

The St-Jean-Baptiste Society chose as its theme for this year's June 24 parade "Quebec, I've always loved you" (similar to our new city slogan, "Montreal, c'est toi ma ville!"). But it forbade marchers to wear "foreign" costumes -- it has been coustomary for our many ethnic communities to appear in colourful robes, saris, even kilts. Premier Bouchard has stated, "We are not a state which favours multiculturalism."

In hearings by a parliamentary committee in May, Warren Allmand (Liberal MP) charged that Quebec's "petty little language police" are destroying the institutions of Montreal anglophones. He noted the bizarre case of spies reporting on apostrophes on signs: "If it was Joe's Bistro, it wasn't French enough." Official languages commissioner Victor Goldbloom agreed: "It is not a question of the future of the English language but a question of the future of the English-speaking community of Quebec."

Ironically, the former Liberal government allowed bilingual signs provided that French predominates. Some anglophones, tired of the constant hassle, are either moving westward, thus depleting the ranks of those voting Non in referendums, or growing militant, picketing West Island shops that cater chiefly to anglophones but maintain unilingual French signs. Some have responded by putting up token bilingual signs inside their stores. Whichever way one moves, of course, there is the threat of backlash. Hard-line sovereigntists want an even stiffer Bill 101.

Premier Bouchard is equally caught in this debate, and we await developments. (We hardly need stress tests any more; living here is evidence enough that we're survivors). Meanwhile, we enjoy the advantages of living in a distinct society -- bilingual, multicultural, confused and often absurd. Un hot-dog, anyone? Oui, avec ketchup, s.v.p.
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Author:Joseph C. McLelland
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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