Montreal, April 15, 2005 • No 153




Harry Valentine is a free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.




by Harry Valentine


          The Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled to uphold Quebec's Bill 101, a law devised to protect the French language and culture in Quebec. An earlier edition of this column suggested that despite Bill 101, Bert and Ernie (of TV's Sesame Street) undermined Quebec's French language policy by teaching English to children of unilingual Francophone families (see "Bert & Ernie undermine PQ compulsory French education policy"). At that time, there was growing concern about increased English usage in the greater Montreal area. French-speaking Quebec parents had realized that in order for their children to function productively in an evolving global economy, a functional knowledge of basic spoken English was essential.


Denied future economic opportunity

          Unilingual francophones employed by Quebec industries have complained that due to their inability to speak English to potential customers across Canada and America, they were losing business. At present, computer software exists that can only translate written text from one language into text of another language. This software can be adapted to function with customized internet instant text message programs, except few businesses actually use such programs. Computer or telephone-based voice translation programs capable of quickly and accurately translating voice communication from one language into voice communication of another language, may still be several years in development. Such software would benefit Quebec businesses by enabling two unilingual people who speak different languages to conduct effective and productive business negotiations across international borders.

          Until instant voice translation programs become widely available in the market, non-English speaking people would need to learn the international language of commerce in order to effectively participate in the global economy. However, children of unilingual Quebec francophone parents who attended French schools are restricted by Bill 101 to only attend French schools. They are prevented by force of law from attending English language schools in Quebec's public school system. Francophone parents initiated a constitutional challenge to Quebec's Bill 101 before Canada's Supreme Court, just to give francophone parents the option of having their children learn English and acquire some hope for their future. But the Supreme Court ruled to uphold Bill 101.

          While Bill 101 may originally have been intended to preserve the French language and French culture in Quebec, it may result in children of unilingual Quebec francophones being denied future economic opportunities due to their limited ability to communicate in English, the predominant language in the global economy. During an earlier period in Quebec history, unilingual francophone workers were usually denied opportunities for advancement in English-owned industries and factories in Quebec, just because they were unilingual francophones. Quebec sovereignists may never have dreamed that their actions could someday deny a new generation of Quebec children opportunity for their economic future, just because they were born to unilingual francophone Quebec families. Except this is what they may ultimately achieve with Bill 101.

          By ruling to uphold Quebec's Bill 101, Canada's Supreme Court has indirectly appointed Bert and Ernie to teach English to Quebec's unilingual francophone pre-schoolers. An earlier generation of children from unilingual francophone families reported that they had their first exposure to the English language courtesy of Bert and Ernie on the Sesame Street TV show. They lived in areas where Sesame Street or similar television programs were broadcast. Several of that generation are now adults who have openly admitted that without Bert and Ernie, they may never have learned to speak in English. As adults who function in the business world, they admit to regularly speaking English to customers and suppliers outside Quebec, while French prevails in their home lives and within significant family relationships.

"While Bill 101 may originally have been intended to preserve the French language and French culture in Quebec, it may result in children of unilingual Quebec francophones being denied future economic opportunity due to their limited ability to communicate in English, the predominant language in the global economy."

          Unilingual francophone families who live within the broadcast areas of the Sesame Street (or similar children's programs) would at least be able to give their children a basic introduction to the English language. Individual families (or groups of families) that have the economic means could hire private tutors to teach their children basic English. However, such initiative may risk provoking government intervention. While such intervention may score political points with Quebec sovereignists, it could also cause resentment amongst unilingual francophone families and against sovereignists and their agenda. Politically, both the Quebec Liberal party and the Parti Québécois would risk losing voter credibility if they in any way tampered with or amended Bill 101.

Freedom of choice VS force of law

          An earlier article in this series suggested that considerable change had occurred in Quebec's economy and culture since the 1950-1980 time period (see "The evolving change in Quebec's distinct society"). The nature of work in many Quebec industries had changed in a way that requires people to think and make decisions in ways that go beyond the job descriptions of their forefathers who did as they were told in mainly English-owned industries and factories. The requirement to think on the job has changed the outlook of a significant proportion of the Quebec francophone population, not only in the way they perceive who they are individually, but in the way they see themselves as being part of a changing society.

          That article concluded that this evolving change in Quebec society required that the leadership of the province's independence movement formulate a new vision as to what life in an independent sovereign Quebec would look like. That vision needs to recognize the emergence of a global economy in which more people who speak a diversity of languages will need to communicate with each other as they engage in increased trade across international boundaries. Until workable voice translation software is available for use in business telecommunications and at competitive prices, Quebec's economy may actually benefit from more Quebeckers being able to speak English in the business world.

          Over the long-term future, a non-coercive regime that respected freedom of choice may do more to preserve and protect the French language and French culture than attempts to achieve such ends by force of law. Federal intervention into multi-cultural matters precipitated an uproar in Quebec and led to the creation of Bill 101. Perhaps after the federal government disbands its department of cultural affairs, a more relaxed atmosphere may prevail in Quebec with regard to preserving the French language and culture. Outside of Quebec across Canada as well as in the New Orleans district of the USA, parents are voluntarily enrolling their children into French language instruction.

          Examples of how to preserve a language and a culture by freedom of choice were part of Canada's ethnic history long before a federal department of cultural affairs ever existed. The Chinatown districts, the Italian districts and the Greek districts flourished in several large metropolitan areas. Freedom of trade amongst citizens ultimately fostered an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance within Canada's cultural diversity. The ethnic restaurant trade played a significant role in facilitating such cross-cultural acceptance. Many of these businesses often had more customers from outside their native culture than from inside. Several ethnic language newspapers have existed within some of Canada's ethnic communities for generations. By the time a federal department of cultural affairs had been instituted, inter-cultural harmony was well established across Canada.