In a rare speech to the Académie Française – the body charged with protecting the French language in its homeland – a senior Quebec minister said Canadian multiculturalism was a thorn in Quebec’s side.
Minister Simon-Jolin-Barrett said people don’t see Quebec’s recent controversial laws, whether Language Bill 96 or even Secularism Bill 21, as being about protecting a fragile culture.
In his speech Thursday, he said, referring to Quebec’s French-speaking culture, we are at a time when “the diversity of cultures is just as threatened as the diversity of animals and plants.”
Jolin-Barrette is Quebec’s Minister of Justice as well as Minister of the French Language, making him deeply involved in both legislation.
In his lengthy speech, he reviewed the history of Quebec, from its founding as a French colony to the Quiet Revolution and beyond.
But one thing, he said, is a particular problem: making sure that newcomers to Quebec learn to live in French.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is the involvement of immigrants in our national project,” he said.
“We are neighbors of a great power, the United States, and operate under an English-speaking majority union. Continental and global linguistic dynamics favor English in every way.”
He criticized Canadian federal law protecting individual rights, describing this focus on the individual as “almost absolute”, at the expense of collective rights in Quebec.
Jolene Barrett continued, “Although our project has been frustrated by Canadian multiculturalism, which finds its equivalent in what she calls communitarianism and which fights Quebecers’ claims to form itself as a distinct nation, ‘French must truly become the language of use for all Quebecers’.”
Despite previous laws forcing all immigrant children to attend school in French, he said that was not enough, prompting the current government to clamp down on English in post-secondary colleges by halting its growth by capping enrollment in schools.
“After graduating from high school… an alarming percentage of students, especially those whose first language is neither English nor French, rush to the English-speaking network to continue their studies,” he said.
He also explicitly linked Bill 21 to the struggle itself. Arguably the most controversial current government law of his four years in power, it banned some public officials, including teachers and the police, from wearing religious symbols at work.
In practice, it has greatly affected Muslim teachers, as school boards have prohibited the hiring or promotion of any female teachers who wear the headscarf. Appeals are still before the courts, and are expected to end in the Supreme Court of Canada.
“Canon 96 for the French language doesn’t come alone,” Jolin-Barrette said.
“It was adopted after Law No. 21 on Secularism, which I also had the honor to pilot, always with the same idea of strengthening the independence and character of the Quebec State.”
LEGAULT says that not all cultures are ‘on the same level’
When asked about Minister Joleen Barrett’s comments in Paris today, Prime Minister François Legault said he was against putting “all cultures on the same level” and stressed the importance of having a “culture of integration” above all else.
“That’s why we oppose multiculturalism. We prefer to focus on what we call ‘multiculturalism’ where you have one culture, the culture of Quebec, where we try to integrate the newcomers, but we want to add to that culture,” the prime minister said.
“I think the new people who come to Quebec – they add to our culture. But it’s important that we have a culture that we integrate into, especially with our language.”
Legault also argued that this is in direct conflict with the Canadian model of multiculturalism.
“I see Mr Trudeau pushing for multiculturalism, so he doesn’t want us to have a culture and a language in which to integrate the new arrivals,” the prime minister said.
Joleen Barrett says media criticism of Bill 96 is ‘lazy’
In his speech, Jolin-Barrette addressed the criticism that embracing English and bilingualism is a way to open up to the world, whether you see it as the language of Shakespeare or “Silicon Valley.”
But the minister said this was a misplaced idea.
“What is presented as an opening to the world often obscures the acculturation that comes with significant loss of memory and identity,” he said.
Gone are the times when people could order service in English or French in Quebec, he said, as in “self-service businesses”.
Jolin-Barrette made a point of attacking the Anglo-Canadian media’s coverage of Bill 96.
“Recently, defamatory articles against Quebec have been published with much satisfaction in American and English-Canadian newspapers,” he said.
“Lazy authors portray our battle from the most distorted and insulting angle, trying to portray it as a backfight, a form of tyranny.”
“Our struggle for the French language is just, it is a global struggle, the battle of a nation that has peacefully resisted the will to power of the strongest.”
During much of the speech, Julien Barrett spoke of the period before the Quiet Revolution, when French itself, he said, was getting lost in Quebec.
“A weak proletariat was born,” he said, “whose tainted language quickly turned into the language of Vranges.”
“The English-speaking oligarch, heiress to British power, imposed its language and imagination … In the 1950s, French Canadians lived in cities where commercial signs were often in English.”
At another point, he described French as the greatest of the Western languages, with the greatest literary influence.
In those decades, he said, “French Canada was one of the very few places in the world where the French language was a sign of social inferiority.”