Attitude of Quebec's francophones softens as French gains dominance

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Guy Rocher sometimes almost regrets his own creation -- Bill 101, Quebec's controversial language law. ``Now we realize it has killed separatism -- for how long we don't know,'' says the professor of law at the University of Montreal. Professor Rocher was one of the intellectual forces behind the Parti Qu'eb'ecois and it's original separatist thrust to lead the province out of Canada.

In fact, during the current provincial election campaign, both the governing Parti Qu'eb'ecois (PQ) and the opposition Liberal Party insist they want a constitutional agreement with Ottawa -- not independence for Quebec and its 6 million people.

Bill 101, introduced by the PQ soon after its electoral success in 1976, requires the use of French as the working language in business, on signs, posters, internal memos, and even on letterhead in Quebec. Advertising must be in French, unless in a publication of another language. The tough law also tightened up a 1974 law, Bill 22, that had forced many children of new immigrants to attend French schools.

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Rocher, recruited by the PQ as a deputy minister of culture, helped draft the law which basically has turned this city of 2.8 million, Canada's second largest, into a much more ``francophone'' city.

``Our intention was to give a French visage to Montreal,'' recalls the expert in the sociology of law.

And this has been achieved. French-speaking Quebeckers have become masters in their own provincial house -- including bilingual Montreal.

A decade or so ago, English was the usual language of commerce in downtown Montreal. The less affluent French-speaking majority generally had to speak English when employed in the city's larger firms that were mostly owned and run by English-speaking Canadians. Many street signs and store signs were in English.

That's all changed. Francophones have a right to speak French at work, and do so nowadays. Signs are in French. Stores must be able to attend to customers in French. Francophones have become successful in business and have their own executive networks.

But the change was highly controversial. A number of corporate headquarters and thousands of their English-speaking employees left the province for cities in English-speaking Canada. Corporations argued that English was the language of commerce for most of North America and they could not manage their businesses in French. An exception was made for corporate headquarters and research and development offices. English-speaking Montrealers particularly resented being forced to use French in commerce.

``You have to understand the psychology of it,'' explains Dr. Louis Balthazar, a professor of political science at Quebec City's Laval University. ``In any part of the world it is hard to find a revolution which is completely balanced.''

Indeed, he admits, many French-speaking Quebeckers were glad to tweak the tongues of their English-speaking fellow-citizens a little.

However, with French now dominant in Montreal and other areas of Quebec where English had been important, the attitude of francophones has softened.

French-speaking Quebeckers feel more comfortable with a base in their own language. The French-English polarization has eased. Some of the 150,000 or so anglophones who left the province have returned to a more friendly atmosphere.

``Young people are not nationalistic anymore,'' says Professor Balthazar, speaking of francophones. ``Singers don't use nationalistic themes. Novelists don't talk about nationalism.''

Moreover, French-speaking Quebeckers feel less culturally threatened by the English masses of North America because of the changes in the schooling system. In the past, most of the thousands of immigrants that settled in Quebec chose to send their children to English-language schools.

As a result, francophones feared they would be swamped by anglophones in future generations. To remedy this situation, Bill 22 set up a linguistic test for children that was intended to force immigrants' offspring into French schools. That prompted such bitterness that Bill 101 based the test on the record of parents. If they had studied in English schools in Quebec, or if they already had one child in an English school, they could send their children to English schools. Otherwise, children have to go t o French schools.

Because of court rulings based on the new Canadian charter of rights, English-speaking Canadians settling in Quebec have the right to send their children to English schools. And signs can be bilingual.

However, with a much larger proportion of Montreal children in French schools, francophones have really won the language fight. And the politicians probably don't want to stir up the hornets nest of language further, especially since jobs, not language have become the top political issue in the province.

Moreover, French-speaking Quebeckers have become more multi-ethnic.

Some 80 cultural groups (neither English or French in origin) make up 12 percent of the province's population.

Thus, holds Prof. Balthazar, the Quebec identity will become more and more a ``global cultural movement.''

Indeed both political parties try to have ethnic candidates in some districts and promise to increase the number of ethnics in the highly-paid provincial civil service.

Both francophones and anglophones in Quebec realize more the economic and cultural value of bilingualism. ``The climate is quiet enough,'' says Prof. Rocher.

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