The laws of language in Le Belle Province. Telegraphed Gazette Column. 11 July 2013
Good evening folks;
Just thought I would post this little piece I have had sitting in a folder for quite some time now. Earlier in the year I dived head first into a sort of project in order to better help me understand why and how the OQLF and Bill 101 came into existence. The article itself – though it may sound a bit messy here and there, and I do apologize for that – was written with the purpose of helping myself understand the situation in Quebec, and why these two items exist today. Hopefully the article will provide some insight into why and how Bill 101 and the OQLF came into being, and possibly with some re-reading, will help you folks understand the situation as well.
Over the past few days I have been wrestling with the concept of official bilingualism in Canada, and how it is achieved. Officially the Federal government is mandated to provide services to both groups in their respective official languages: that being French, and/or English. Now I have come to dwell on the thought of just how useful the OLF and Bill 101 is in preserving Quebec’s unique identity as a French-speaking province. Therefore I have decided to record some of my thoughts here on this piece, and hopefully through this I will be able to better understand the situation.
Canada has two official languages: French, and English. Both languages are the primary vernacular of the respective, entrenched populace of the country, and both languages have been here since the nation was created. While the rest of Canada speaks English, and encourages newcomers to speak English, Quebec is predominately French-speaking, and in turn will encourage newcomers to pick up and speak French. Now the past few months have been spent analyzing the situation of Anglophones in Montreal; however little thought was given to the reality that Quebec – the province as a whole – is French-speaking, and naturally the province’s largest city – Montreal – will in turn be home to a large portion of that population. 6.8 million Canadians speak French at home, and of this number, 6.2 million – 91% – reside in the province of Quebec. Therefore it is no wonder that they are in support of Bill 101, with varying support for the Office Quebecois de la langue Francais. Amidst a sea of English-speaking provinces, Quebec stands as the sole that speaks primarily French (New Brunswick is bilingual, but the population is amongst a minority, and Ontario is similar in that only certain regions are designated as Bilingual). Considering how we here in the lower mainland and the rest of Canada demand that newcomers adopt English for public life and for public interaction, it is understood then that Quebecers would do so with newcomers to the province.
Belgium is a bilingual, sometimes trilingual country: French, Dutch, and German are the three official languages of the country. Dutch is official in the entire northern section of the country, and French the entire southern half. The German language sits off to the eastern rim of the southern half, and constitutes a slim bit of land where the language is primarily spoken. Now Belgium is similar to Canada in that one region is primarily French-speaking, while the other half is mainly Dutch-speaking. They did not choose one language or the other; rather they took both, and more or less separated them from one another, yet unified them through legislation. Now in the bite-sized bits of information I have attained regarding the Belgian Army; they play host to both Dutch-speaking, and French-speaking battalions. Government officials on the national level are required to be bilingual, and at the “provincial” level are encouraged, but not entirely required to be bilingual. This bit of Geography analysis then brought me to think: how does a language become official?
Coming back across the Atlantic; in Canada French is spoken mainly in Quebec, as only 7.7% of the population in that province speaks English. Thus the end result was to include French as part of the official languages of the new-born nation, so that they are able to preserve the union and fight off separation. The situation we have here in Canada is similar to that in Belgium: two dominant linguistic groups exist, and both are equally worth keeping, and equally worth preserving. Therefore it is in the best interest of the nation – if she desires to remain as one – to make both languages of the majorities of their respective regions the two official languages of the nation so that the federal government will represent both parties equally. Readers I realize I am jumping all over the place here, but I have to understand linguistic entrenchment and preservation first, in order to secure a better understanding and reason behind the formation of the OLF and of Bill 101. Summarizing what was just said: French and English are official languages because the majority in their respective areas seek to preserve their already entrenched linguistic practices, therefore when the nation was created it was in their best interest to declare official languages in order to prevent either one from disappearing from the nation (though French only received official status Federally later on in the 60s to 70s).
Right, now I understand how French and English came to become official languages. A smart move; that way those who arrive to this nation will understand that the majority of the population communicate, and conduct themselves in either of the two official languages. Okay, so Bill 101 therefore is similar to the language requirements here in British Columbia. It is obvious that a public servant cannot work in the courts without knowledge of English, therefore it is understood that the same can be applied to Quebec in that one cannot work in the government bureaucracy without a good command of the French language. This makes a lot of sense then, as Bill 101 is similar to language requirements for immigration and for employment. The majority of the populace speak French, and it is therefore in the best interest of the individual to learn French so that they can engage in the culture of the province, as well as participate in the political scene, and in turn gain a few friends here and there and enrich their lives in Le Belle Province. However as everyone knows legislation is useless without a physical entity to enforce it: in come the OLF. The OLF is mandated to preserve French in Quebec, and to review any cases of Quebecers complaining that they had their language rights violated, and that the businesses in question were unable to comply with the language laws. It is understood then that the OLF is set up as a means for complaints to be heard, and to preserve the French language in the province. The only real problem that I have with the OLF then is simply overzealous inspectors. If the shop can provide service to the customer in French, and the co-workers can communicate in French, then there is no problem. If the co-workers choose to speak another language in the back, and switch between French and another language, that should not be a problem either. Again this has more to do with overzealous ideas and practices than the actual office and legislation.
Preservation of both English and French in Canada is important, not only so that the majority are served, but to also aid in assimilation when it comes to immigration and migration. This brief piece has therefore helped me to understand how and why bilingualism exists, and the subsequent protection of these languages in the nation. Ultimately I guess it boils down to this: there was a sizeable majority in the country that spoke French, so it was declared official alongside the language of the rest of the country in order to not only keep this cherished section of the country, but to ensure that they too can serve the nation and function within it in their own language. With the two majorities and their languages protected, the laws then seek to promote integration of newcomers rather than simply allowing them to settle and form their own sub-community. I guess when it comes to assimilation the two majorities have to be a bit selfish in order to achieve unity. Otherwise various groups will refuse to assimilate and in turn could fracture the country on cultural-linguistic grounds.