Quebec’s intolerant government undermines Canadian claims of progressiveness

I often hear elite-level American intellectual types — pundits and academics and futurists and so on — express great optimism about Canada’s potential. The country is framed as a glimmer of hope in a bleak world, a dynamic, modern, urbane, democratic, multicultural, open-minded success story, free of the toxic nationalism and populist authoritarianism steering the rest of the planet into a ditch.

The great blind spot of such optimistic analysis has always been Quebec — a province housing 8.7 million of Canada’s 38.7 million citizens, and a place preoccupied with pursuing policies at odds with every flattering Canadian stereotype. On virtually any metric one might correlate with a promising, modern society — a hospitable business climate, an up-to-date education system, open and inviting communities, robust protection of individual liberties, a moderate and rational political class — Canada’s second-largest province marches unapologetically in the opposite direction.

This week, Quebec’s parliament passed Bill 96, “An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec”. It’s an ambitious piece of legislation granting the state sweeping powers to ensure that speaking French — the presumed cultural cornerstone of Quebec’s “distinct identity” — is all but mandatory in virtually every realm of life. The project of making Quebec a homogenous French-speaking nation is now the goal to which everything else is officially subordinate.

Private businesses in Quebec with more than 50 employees have long been obligated to use French as their primary language of internal communication. Bill 96 halves the number of employees required to meet the threshold and grants the so-called language police new powers to raid businesses without a warrant to ensure compliance, searching through documents, computers and even phones to make sure that ... I don’t know, that employees aren’t secretly planning the company softball tournament in English (or, for that matter, Korean or Arabic or Greek). Offenders could see their business licenses revoked.

The noose around English education is also tightening — English-language colleges in Quebec must now require students to take multiple courses in French, and students must prove French proficiency to graduate. The government is likewise required to ensure these dangerous schools never represent more than 17.5 percent of the provincial student body.

Immigrants — long viewed as one of Quebec’s most daunting challenges, given how little of the world speaks French these days — will see their ability to communicate with the province in English cut off after six months. No access to English schools for them, of course.

Quebeckers who speak English as their first language, meanwhile, will see their status as an “official minority” defined and monitored more tightly than ever, to ensure the only Quebeckers accessing English-language services have some valid, “historic” reason for doing so — lest presumably normal French Quebeckers get any ideas. It’s been estimated as many as half a million English-speaking Quebeckers could lose access to services due to bureaucratic redefinition of their community.

The list goes on. Doctors will have to speak to patients in French, the appointments of bilingual judges will be discouraged, and packages, signs and advertisements will have to feature French even more prominently than they do now.

The dream embodied by Bill 96 — alongside other nationalistic initiatives of Quebec Premier François Legault, including cuts to immigration and a ban on public servants wearing religious clothing — is one of a “pure” Quebec, splendidly unspoiled by other cultures. It brings to mind the "sakoku” years of Japan, in which a sheltered political elite convinced of the inherent inferiority of the outside world isolated itself for two centuries, tightly restricting even learning about foreign things.

Apologists for Legault’s agenda, even if they don’t necessarily agree with his every bill and decree, tend to grandly gesture at the idea that Quebec’s French culture is so precious and delicate that virtually any effort to preserve it is forgivable. A recent article in the National Post by Lise Ravary hit the standard notes of sympathy for the “400 year-old dream of a French-speaking corner of North America”. This included an obligatory mention of Louisiana, one of the most culturally rich and distinctive places on this continent, yet commonly imagined as a sort of hell in Quebec circles, because the state doesn’t widely speak French anymore.

Louisiana aside, there is an endless array of places Quebec could have chosen to be positively inspired by — prosperous and dynamic European nations such as Sweden or the Netherlands, where a robust pride for traditional language and customs coexists with sky-high levels of English fluency and deep cultural integration with the broader West. Quebec doesn’t even need to look outside its own borders, in fact: The city of Montreal has long captivated the world with its confident multilingualism and multiculturalism, yet generations of Quebec’s nationalist leaders have nevertheless viewed the vibrant cosmopolitanism of their largest city as a shameful problem to be solved.

Canada may still be a country worth betting on, but in a post-Bill 96 world, it’s clear any compliments of Canadian progressiveness must be accompanied by a large, Quebec-shaped asterisk.

J.J. McCullough is a Global Opinions contributing columnist.

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