My position on Bill 101

6 February 2011 · Comment   

Last Friday, I gave an interview to host Jordi Morgan at the Halifax radio station News 95.7. As part of a discussion on the federal government’s intrusions into areas of provincial jurisdictions, the show’s host asked me whether governments have a role to play in fostering a national identity through legislation, with laws like the Canada Health Act.

I answered that people know who they are and that it’s not the government’s role to create and protect a national identity. I used Quebec as an example and said that we don’t need Bill 101 to protect the French language.

I did not expect to create such a storm by expressing my belief that we should let people act like free and responsible individuals, including when it comes to protecting their language, instead of relying on government coercion to do it for them.

This has since generated several denunciations from public figures in Quebec and a wave of angry comments on the Internet.

Some people say I am not a “real Quebecer” and are accusing me of “attacking Quebec” simply because I want to be more popular in the rest of Canada. They seem unable to conceive that it’s possible to have a different position than theirs on the basis of fundamental principles.

My position is this: Yes, it’s important that Quebec remain a predominantly French-language society. And ideally, everyone in Quebec should be able to speak French. But we should not try to reach this goal by restricting people’s rights and freedom of choice.

French will survive if Quebecers cherish it and want to preserve it; it will flourish if Quebec becomes a freer, more dynamic and prosperous society; it will thrive if we make it an attractive language that newcomers want to learn and use. Not by imposing it and by preventing people from making their own decisions in matters that concern their personal lives.

Whenever the issue of Bill 101 is raised, it is often claimed that “there is a consensus in Quebec” about it: apart from some extremist English-rights activists and traitors to Quebec, everybody is presumed to agree with Bill 101. It’s a settled matter that cannot be questioned. That makes it easier to isolate and denigrate those who raise any criticism about it.

But that consensus simply does not exist. For example, a poll conducted last year by the respected firm Léger Marketing showed that 66 per cent of Quebecers, including a 61 per cent clear majority of francophones, agreed with the principle that everyone in Quebec should be free to choose their language of education.

Why should francophone parents not be allowed to send their children to an English or bilingual school for parts of their studies, so that they become completely fluent in both languages? English is the language of 350 million people surrounding us. It is also the most important international language all over the world. Mastering it is a major asset.

Not only this, but there has been an important English-speaking population in Quebec for 250 years. Unless we believe that Quebec today is simply an extension of New France, and that only descendants of the French settlers are real Quebecers, then English too is part of Quebec’s identity.

In a free and democratic society, we should be able to say these things and debate them calmly without being pilloried. I am disappointed to see that many will even question my right to express a personal opinion on this matter in public.

What is also troubling is that there is no one in Quebec at the political level who is willing to speak up for this silent majority that wants fewer restrictive laws and more positive incentives to promote the use of French while remaining open to English. What should we conclude from this, other than that this is a clear indication that our political life is somewhat dysfunctional?

That being said, Bill 101 is a provincial issue and my position does not involve my party or my government. I speak here as a Quebecer. I will continue to do so because I love Quebec and I want it to become the freest and most prosperous place in North America.

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