Reasons why the Separatist Approach to Language Policy will eventually fail

“Still, some of the measures have English-language defenders concerned.

Bill 14 would make it more difficult for municipalities with an English population under 50 per cent to maintain bilingual status.

The PQ’s law would also extend rules for French in the workplace to small businesses with between 49 and 26 employees, and make it harder for students from the French education system to attend English junior-colleges.

Antoinette Mercurio, who runs a Montreal travel agency, said the rules will make it harder to run her agency and hurt her bottom line.”

  • English-rights activists protest new Quebec language law, by Benjamin Shingler, Toronto Star, The Canadian Press, Published on Sun Feb 17 2013


In the mid to late nineties, I attended York University. Given that I was studying Political Science, the 1995 Referendum had special meaning to me. As I sat in the Common Room of Calumet College on the Downsview Campus of York University, the results came in. Throughout the night, I felt the depths of depression and the highs of eventual victory. 

However, the win did not end my curiosity in that special event; rather it piqued it. In the aftermath of the 1995 Referendum, I went on a reading binge because I wanted to understand why we came so close to the end. Eventually, I came across a book by Helene Jutras. Entitled Québec is Killing Me. The book provided an interesting argument on the state of Québec. In many ways, the book talked about what I saw: Québec’s growing competiveness gap. Québec youth were leaving their home province so that they could study at York University and the University of Toronto. Many of them left Québec so that they could study English.

It was not that their schools were uncompetitive. It was not that their schools were more expensive. It was simple: Young Québecois left Montréal, Chicoutimi, Québec or Trois-Rivières so that they could learn English. For many of them, this was an opportunity. For “pur laine” francophones, it was a way in which they could escape their stagnant province.  Those who were not “pur laine” also left “la bell Province” because they felt left out of Québec society. As one of those Allophones told me, she studied at Glendon College because she felt that she would not be able to obtain great opportunities inside Québec. In her opinion, her minority status made a difference. Given that Premier Parizeau blamed “money and the ethnic vote” for his referendum lose, one might say that the voice of one Québecoise might have been correct. Consequently, young people left Québec to get a chance at success.

However, this is only one way to measure Québec’s economic issues. Another measure is to look at Québec’s relative decline within the Canadian Federation. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Montréal used to be the hub for industry, media and finance. Yet, with the rise of the Sovereignty Movement, this all changed. Bank of Montreal’s Canadian Operations used to be in Montreal. That has changed; for their Canadian Operations are now largely run out of Toronto. While SunLife Financial moved all of their corporate operations from Montreal to Southern Ontario, in the mid 80’s.

In fact, before the Sovereigntist push, the Province of Québec had a comparable economy to Ontario. However, now Québec’s economy provides less than 20% of Canada’s total GDP. Statistically, while Ontario provides 37.14% of Canada’s economic performance, Québec only provides 19.65% of Canada’s GDP. This is remarkably low considering Alberta (16.75%) and BC (12.36%) economies depend on half of Québec’s population. Therefore, it is easy to say that Québec’s “Sovereignty” fetish has starved its economy and its people.

Pragmatically, one would think that the Government of Québec – either Sovereigntist or Federalist – would not do anything more to harm the Québec Economy. However, it turns out I am wrong, for the New PQ Government has decided to further restrict the use of the English Language in Quebec. The new prohibitions are listed in Bill 14.

So let us take one of the simple restrictions head on. Currently, Quebec language law exempts small businesses from having to implement many of Bill 101’s language restrictions. Presently, a small business is defined as a business that has no more than fifty people. Under the proposed legislation, that limit would be dropped to 26 people. Now that might seem like a small thing, but I would argue that it will make Quebec business uncompetitive. Let me illustrate this point to you. When I was younger, I worked for an Internet Start-up. The Start-up was developing educational tools for the financial space. When I started, we had just under 15 employees. The Business Development Staff was travelling from Toronto to New York, Chicago, Vancouver, Calgary and San Francisco to develop clients. As our client base grew, so did our need for staff. The firm quickly grow. Each day, more people would be hired. There was a need for more sales staff. There was need for a marketing department and a human resources department. There was the acquisition of an in-house council and the need for longer term visionaries.

The firm jumped from fifteen to thirty to fifty overnight. We went from one floor to two. All of this expansion though, did not mean ultimate success. Like many companies, our firm collapsed. In this case, its remnants were purchased and continued on. However, the point is illustrative. For new firms to come to the fore, they must be able to communicate with key markets. In North America, this means communicating with New York, Toronto, Chicago, Boston, Halifax, Miami, Seattle, Detroit and Charlotte. This means having the capacity to speak and operate in English. If an economy does not have the capacity to speak in English, they are unable to compete in North America. This is why the Dutch teach English in High School. The Dutch do so not because they are afraid of being overwhelmed by the English Language, but they are afraid of being left behind economically in a world that uses English for Business.

The present Government should not be afraid of their population’s ability to speak English. Think of Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. Now most Canadians have not heard of this firm; however, they have heard of their brands. They include Dairy Mart, Daisy Mart and Winks. Or maybe you might of heard of Mac’s, Mike’s Mart and Becker’s? They are all brands of “Couche-Tard”.  Just for the record “Couche-Tard” is one of the largest company-owned convenience store operators in the world with more than 13,000 stores across Canada, the United States, Europe, Mexico, Japan, China, and Indonesia. Formed in the 1980’s and headquartered in Laval, the Company has become a global player. However, it has done so because its staff, including its executive staff, can communicate in English. In fact, I have listened to the founder and his English is better than my French. This means he can communicate his ideas to his customers, shareholders, employees, regulators and other stakeholders. The Ability to speak English in business is essential.

Accordingly, if a business executive cannot speak English, they cannot communicate with brokers in English Canada and the United States. If business executives cannot communicate in English, they cannot help in the provision of shares to the NASDAQ, New York, Toronto and the Chicago Exchanges. A firm, even a Québec-based firm, needs to be able to communicate in English to speak to Seventy Percent of Canadians and nearly a Hundred Percent of Americans who use the English Language as the language of business. If the Province of Quebec wants to be Internationally Competitive, it should leave laws as they are. This is not just because as a Liberal, I want to care for the other. But pragmatically, the creation of many strong businesses leads to a strong economy. If René Lévesque’s understood that the provision of “good government” allows for everything surely Ms. Marois must understand this too.

With all of this being said, Québec is not a lost cause. While the Sovereignty Movement has done much damage, it has left a peculiar but interesting landscape: a trilingual Montréal. The Language Laws, as passed by the Levesque Government, created an interesting landscape. While the intent was to make French the lingua franca, Québec Language Laws have created a generation of largely trilingual employees. This type of development could be the foundation of a largely international workforce – encouraging businesses to come to Montréal, Chicoutimi, Québec or Trois-Rivières. Business could grow if Ms. Marois’ Government just left the legislation as it is. The question that will be answered in the next couple of days is simple: Will Ms. Marois led or will she follow? Will she listen to those who are in her party or those who are in society? Her success depends on the right answer to the question at hand.


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