Spelling out a true threat to the French language in Quebec


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The Quebec government wants to ring in 2021 by tightening language laws to shore up the perceived erosion of French usage. Instead of auld lang syne it will be, with apologies for flippancy, an old language whine, so to speak.
While precise details are lacking on what aspects of Bill 101 and its offspring the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government plans to toughen, we know one of the traditional gripes of language hard-liners – such as language minister Simon Jolin-Barrette – is not a target. Premier François Legault has made it clear he will not seek to apply Bill 101 restrictions to English CEGEPs.

We also know the federal Liberals are planning to act to defuse another explosive and sensitive language device, the exemption from the provisions of Bill 101 for economic sectors under federal jurisdiction, notably banking, telecommunications and transportation.

Reports last week said the Trudeau government is considering the move as part of a complete review of the 50-year-old Official Languages Act currently underway.

Trudeau himself publicly stated that he agreed French was in danger in Quebec, and sided with the six former Quebec premiers who signed a declaration to “support the will of the government of Quebec to carry out a major reform of the Charter of the French Language in order to ensure the protection and the influence of our national language.”

One of the exes to sign the declaration is Jean Charest, whose administration from 2003-2012 was in a time of relative linguistic peace following the decades-long drama of the referendum era from 1976 to 1995.

Although not quite (yet) in the mold of the Justin/Pierre dynamic, Charest’s son Antoine Dionne-Charest is making a name for himself in the community of political opinion. Currently a doctoral candidate in philosophy and a former Liberal ministerial aide, Dionne-Charest offered some alternative thoughts among the prevailing dogma regarding the state of French in Quebec.

In an opinion piece in La Presse last week, Dionne-Charest made this bold observation: “If the government of Quebec really wants to strengthen the status of the French language, it should first and foremost reform the teaching of French.”

Further: “If young people do not learn to read and write correctly, they cannot be expected to value French as a common public language.”

The data Dionne-Charest uses to back up his argument makes the manipulable statistics on the state of French on polyglot Montreal Island that have set some folks’ hair on fire seem rather benign in comparison.

“According to the Literacy Foundation,” writes Dionne-Charest, “19 per cent of Quebecers are illiterate and 34.3 per cent have great reading difficulties. If we add these percentages, that means 53 per cent of Quebecers are completely or functionally illiterate.”

If you can read and understand the above paragraph, you are in the minority in Quebec.

And, to explode a myth, according to the Literacy Foundation, immigrants have a lower rate of illiteracy, 30 per cent, than the population at large. “Immigrants often have very good reading and writing skills in their own language. Where they have trouble is with French, so they are more in need of French-language classes than literacy training.”

Dionne-Charest’s cri de coeur is not new, of course. Nationalist pundit and language firebrand Denise Bombardier, for one, has been railing against Quebec’s reading problem for years.

In 2016, as she wrote in a column in the Journal de Québec, “The billions swallowed up in education are therefore a dead loss, since we rank behind the Canadian provinces with more than half of the population severely handicapped by their inability to read and understand...What should be a national emergency leaves the authorities without voice and without words.” Since Bombardier wrote those words, the level of illiteracy has crept higher in Quebec.

Writes the very literate son of a former premier: “Quebec has made considerable progress on the linguistic front. However, there are still major pitfalls associated with mastering French, which a legislative solution such as Bill 101 cannot remedy. The time has come to take a new step in our language policies by giving everyone an equal chance to master and love the French language.”

With another language debate looming, some voices are spelling out where a real problem lies.