Bilingualism should be about choice, not coercion
A couple of years ago, I was working on a project in Montreal that required me to navigate the municipal bureaucracy to acquire a permit which could only be issued in-person by a single employee in one particular Bureau d'acces.
I showed up during her lunch hour, naturally, but when she returned I learned she spoke virtually no English. My French was better than her English, but not good enough for the technical needs of the task at hand.
After 10 minutes of failed Franglais and the most unwelcome game of Charades I’ve ever played, she summoned her trilingual, Korean-born supervisor (who greeted me with a “hola” to add to the unintended comedy of the whole situation). He was able to clear things up in a matter of minutes.
I had previously viewed Montreal as the last remaining place in Quebec where an anglophone could reliably get by, though I wasn’t so sure after that episode. I was reminded of this yesterday when Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau confessed he’s been a Montreal anglophone for 14 years.
“I've been able to live in Montreal without speaking French, and I think that's a testament to the city of Montreal," Rousseau said to reporters after delivering an English speech to the Montreal Chamber of Commerce.
That the French reporter who asked him about it didn’t even want to ask the question in English was an effective harbinger for how poorly this would go over with Quebec’s political establishment.
Nevertheless, rather than get on standby for a one-way ticket from Dorval to anywhere else, Rousseau apologized for his honesty and made a “pledge to improve my French, an official language of Canada and the common language of Québec.”
It likely won’t assuage the concerns of those seeking the Francization of Canadian society, including Quebec’s language minister, Simon Jolin-Barrette.
"The big boss of Air Canada expresses everything we rejected decades ago: contempt for our language and our culture at home in Quebec," he tweeted (in French). "These words are unworthy of the role he occupies."
Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages, Raymond Théberge, chimed in to say “like any CEO of a company subject to the Official Languages Act,” Rousseau “should be able to communicate in the official languages.”
Such a claim is a misrepresentation of the act, and also of what Canadian bilingualism is supposed to be.
The law gives equal and official status to English and French as Canada’s national languages, ensuring unilingual Canadians can access government services in either of them.
Contrary to Théberge’s implication, the Official Languages Act explicitly protects employees against discrimination based on first language.
While Jolin-Barrette and Théberge are seeking to preserve a minority language, it is coercive to demand individual people must learn French.
Rousseau’s sin was admitting that you don’t need French to succeed.
This was evident from Parti Québécois language critic Pascal Bérubé’s lamentation that Rousseau is telling young anglophones they have a place in Quebec society without speaking French.
The franco-nationalists don’t like that French is irrelevant for most Canadians. That doesn’t mean it is irrelevant to Canada, but that many anglophones who do learn French are only doing so because they have to.
It’s not uncommon in government to see bilingualism become the default for numerous positions, even those that don’t have a need for it.
New Brunswick notwithstanding, Canada is two unilingual countries, not a single bilingual one. While there are clearly pockets of the country, such as downtown Ottawa and downtown Montreal, that are effectively bilingual, unilingual anglophones and unilingual francophones can generally function just fine where they choose to live.
Canada’s bilingualism is supposed to afford people the ability to live in English or French – it shouldn’t compel them to do both.
(Now, good luck telling people that if you’re a monoglot politician. There’s a reason that saying a politician “is learning French” has become synonymous with having prime ministerial ambitions.)
If Rousseau has managed in Montreal, then power to him. If his colleagues at Air Canada are working in English while fulfilling their obligations to French customers, then what’s the problem? The language test, which he’s evidently failed, is not serving Canadians well.
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