'New Quebeckers'An Unseen Force

Grown-up children of immigrants may tip the balance against Quebec separation

When Alexandre Gousse was growing up, watching cartoons on television served him well: The child of Haitian immigrant parents learned the English language from "The Flintstones."

But "nowadays, it's dubbed into French," Mr. Gousse says.

Born in the 1960s, Gousse just missed being part of the first generation in Quebec to be schooled in mandatory French. Now he and the younger new Quebeckers, the "Children of Bill 101," are subtly changing the tenor of Canada's politics and could influence Quebec's chances for independence.

These young adults are "getting into the middle of society without anyone realizing it," Gousse says.

Bill 101, fully implemented in 1978, mandated education in French for all of Quebec's children except those with parents or siblings who had been taught in English elsewhere in Canada. Before the law, immigrant children such as Gousse had opted overwhelmingly for English schools. Now they were forced into French-language institutions.

As the province has sought to protect its culture from the influence of the English-speaking neighbors surrounding it, "the goal [of preserving the French language in Quebec] seems to be attained," says Vilaysoun Loungnarath. The young law professor at the University of Montreal was born to a Laotian father and a French Canadian mother.

Young Quebeckers now are "usually trilingual - and a lot of them define themselves as Canadians and Quebeckers," says writer Neil Bissoondath, a native of Trinidad.

"They aren't truly Franco-phones in the sense of 'someone whose outlook is shaped by the French language,' " he says.

But whereas "a lot of Montreal Francophones grow up with a chip on their shoulder," he continues, this new generation of immigrants "is open to English, open to the world."

While separation from Canada won't be up for a vote in Quebec's Nov. 30 election, it remains a perennial question. In 1980 and 1995, Quebeckers voted to remain in Canada, but by ever-thinning margins.

Lucien Bouchard, Quebec's premier and leader of the separatist Parti Qubcois (PQ), has said that if his party wins, he will call a referendum on separation as soon as he thinks conditions are favorable. Polls indicate the gap between support for the PQ and the rival Liberal Party, which vehemently opposes separation, is narrow.

"The PQ needs new blood," says Gousse. "They need people with new ideas. The boomers' generation needs to pass the baton." (Some observers suggest that the PQ is so long in the tooth, the baby-boom generation hasn't even received the baton.)

The idea of the separatist cause being taken up by Gousse, a "new Quebecker," and a black one at that, makes the political profile of today's Quebec even more complex.

Gousse believes the PQ could use more savvy in dealing with new Quebeckers. "There's a real generational divide," he says, between immigrant parents and their Quebec-born children. The PQ misses this kind of distinction he says.

Gousse adds, "With Bill 101 they created a new generation - well educated, with good jobs, lots of ideas. If they don't open up, these people are going to move elsewhere."

Some observers feel that pressure for separatism will be reduced as more and more immigrants acquire the language but not the historical baggage of French Canadians. They say the new Francophones will have a neutralizing influence within Quebec, just as waves of English-speaking immigrants have weakened the British identity of the rest of Canada.

Canadian-born, London-based writer Gwynne Dyer wrote in Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper this year that "the very solution that saved the French language in Canada, by forcing immigrants to Quebec to integrate into the French-speaking community, is sabotaging the project for an independent Quebec."

Richard Martineau, editor of Voir, a French-language weekly, says, "Bill 101 made separatism obsolete - it is irrelevant now."

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