Representing barely two per cent of the North American population, Quebecers have always had good reason to feel sensitive when it comes to the vitality of French. Concerns about linguistic and cultural assimilation have led to several waves of government intervention aiming to protect the language of Molière. Bill 96 is only the latest manifestation of these worries about identity, but it might well be the one that most openly attacks the fundamental rights of our anglophone friends.
Indeed, access to public services in English will be severely limited. Only those eligible to receive English instruction thanks to historical criteria will have the right to receive services in the language of Shakespeare. According to the Quebec Community Groups Network, between 300,000 and half a million people will lose the right to receive health care in their preferred language. This simple fact alone should push us to question the merits of the bill. But there’s more.
Bill 96 will have many economic consequences. Companies will have no choice but to use French when filing a motion before the courts, making the practice particularly burdensome. Moreover, companies with 25 or more employees will henceforth have to comply with the whole range of obligations stemming from the Charter of the French Language, which establishes French as the language of work in Quebec. For many companies, this will be an incentive to move their Quebec branch to the other side of the Ottawa River.
In recent years, many have worried about Quebec losing head offices. Yet Bill 96 will make it much more difficult for our large companies to require bilingualism as a condition of employment, while English is the international language of business. Our Quebec flagship companies that do business abroad will therefore have an incentive to base some of their more vital operations outside the province. It’s as if the government’s right hand didn’t know what its left hand was doing.
The bill is also likely to have unintended negative consequences for the francophone population. It will become disadvantageous for large transport or logistics companies, which depend on co-ordination among actors based in several provinces or even countries, to hire Quebecers if they are unable to make sure they’re bilingual.
Quebec’s economic history also teaches us that French is strengthened when the incentives to adopt it are clear for anglophones and allophones. In short, the carrot is more effective than the stick. Between 1900 and 1940, francophones’ incomes were 20 per cent lower than those of anglophones in the province. From 1940 to 2000, though, francophones made up a lot of ground, such that the gap with anglophones has been almost completely erased.
At the same time, the rate of bilingualism among anglophones began to increase. The same phenomenon was observed among new arrivals. In 1970, the use of French among non-francophones had increased by 10 percentage points, and by the same amount again since. The lesson to be drawn is clear: The more successful the francophone majority is economically, the more anglophones and allophones have to gain from learning French.
The most effective way to increase the attractive power of French even more is therefore to strengthen the economic status of the historical majority. How can we do this? We could start by catching up in terms of educational level. Some 75 per cent of francophones receive a high school diploma, compared to 84.5 per cent of anglophones. Francophones have a lower university graduation rate, too, which also has negative repercussions for our relative productivity.
It might not always be attractive for politicians to emphasize education and productivity, but this is nonetheless the true key to success. A government that wants to strengthen the standing of French should therefore take the time to really grapple with the task at hand, and do its homework rather than giving us lectures.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the MEI. The views reflected in this opinion piece are his own.