Quebec is not a bilingual province

Posted 02.27.13

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | It will come as a surprise to some of our readers, but our province is officially unilingual; its legal language is French, and only French.

Many who write letters to the editor believe Canada is a bilingual country and they assume since Quebec is a province, it must also be bilingual. This is mistaken, and the mistake is a big one: Canada is not a bilingual country.

What's confusing is that the federal government of Canada is officially bilingual. This means that the federal government must conduct itself in a bilingual manner. It does not mean that the whole country is bilingual, only the federal government's own operations. And Francophones have noticed this bilingual service is not universal in all federal services.

Confusing the federal government with the whole country gives rise to many expectations and complaints.

In our Canadian federation, language, culture and education are provincial matters, not federal. Therefore, Quebec (and any province) could decide to become an Algonquin-speaking government, for example, and the federal government would have no jurisdiction over this decision. Only one province has declared its government bilingual -- New Brunswick. Quebec hasn't, nor has Ontario.

From a non-legal point of view, Quebec is a multi-lingual province. We have significant populations who speak aboriginal languages, as well as the many languages of our immigrant and ancestor populations. Yet these languages have no legal status, in the sense that citizens have no legal right to be served in them.

I hope that this is clear: "official languages" are the languages approved by each government for its own operations, including the delivery of services. This does not affect language use on the street. You and I may speak Spanish or Swahili; we can publish or read Farsi newspapers, if we wish.

Apart from this legal question, there are other questions -- of democracy, cultural protection, expense, courtesy, historical privilege, and of practicality, especially in business and diplomatic matters. None of these trump the legal definition of an official language -- none -- and these considerations present a challenge because they are often in conflict with each other. Which will the legislators opt to recognize? That's their choice.

Quebec and New Brunswick are unique in the confederation in that they each have a unique culture-and-language (both!), and being unique in North America, Quebec has made it clear it will protect its culture-and-language by all legal means. That's any province's right.

A province cannot ban the use of any language within the population; it can only regulate language-use within government services. Quebec has extended this further with Law 101, and does regulate language in its other jurisdictions, education, in the workplace, and on commercial signs, but Law 101 cannot prevent anyone from speaking English in stores, on buses, or on the street. Nationalists may object, but 101 does not say municipalities cannot add a language, besides French, as a courtesy to its minority-groups. Governments are expected to reach and serve all their taxpayers.

The PQ government of today has introduced Bill 14 which will tighten up language restrictions in the jurisdictions of Cegep education, workplaces, and other areas. This bill also expands English education in the early grades. It has not been passed and is under attack by both the minorities (e.g. Regional Association of West Quebecers) and by cultural nationalists.

To sum up: Canada and Quebec (and MRC Pontiac) are not absolutely bilingual, nor exclusively unilingual, jurisdictions; as governments they may add a second language to deliver services, as long as the legal language is respected.


Copyright © 2013 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/02.13