Immigrants keep a linguistic island afloat. But some natives say newcomers threaten Francophone culture. LETTER FROM QUEBEC

IT'S story time in the first grade at Madeleine de Verch`eres Elementary School in Montreal's working-class East End. The pupils sit cross-legged on the floor. They have names like Philippe Dan-Ba Phu-Viet, Jonathan Morales Calmet, Jean-Guy Ouellette, and Sonia Melo Linhares. Like many other classes in Canada's second-largest city, this class is a mosaic of ethnic origins. About 35 percent of the Verch`eres School's 563 pupils are from immigrant backgrounds. At home, they speak a number of different languages: Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, Creole, Vietnamese, Laotian, and Chinese. But at school they speak the official language of Quebec: French.

``The children speak French well after about 10 months,'' says Haitian-born teacher Mireille M'etellus. ``When their parents come to parent-teacher meetings, the children are now serving as interpreters.''

Ms. M'etellus specializes in helping children from low-income families overcome learning disabilities. She says the cross-cultural situation contributes to such problems. Asian and Haitian children are brought up to respect the absolute authority of the teacher, for example, whereas native Quebec children tend to challenge that authority.

``A child will get one kind of training at home,'' she says, ``and another at school. That's where the behavioral problems start. The child will say to his mother, `Why do you tell me I can't do something, when my teacher says I can?'''

One man's meat is another man's poison - or so it may seem in Quebec, a linguistic island of 6.5 million people, most of them French speakers, that stands in an ocean of 250 million English-speaking North Americans. Quebecers both revel in and suffer from their unique status.

For much of its history, Quebec has been characterized by its cultural isolation, its Roman Catholic faith, and its phenomenal birthrate. But since 1960, the province has become a modern, secular, industrialized society. Its population still accounts for 25 percent of all Canadians. But in the process of modernization, the province's birthrate has plummeted to the level of Denmark's and West Germany's.

Thus, the faces of immigrants are becoming more noticeable here. Over the last decade, Quebec has admitted an average of 19,035 immigrants a year - 17.2 percent of the Canadian total.

``If we continue to have so few children,'' says Jacques Henripin, professor of demography at the University of Montreal, ``and replace the children who aren't born with immigrants, the French-speaking majority of Quebec could disappear in a century or two.''

Any talk of the disappearance of this apparently prosperous society might seem alarmist. But in Quebec, gloomy demographic predictions make headlines. The province has struggled for survival since the colonial period, going so far as to contemplate independence from Canada. While the independence option was ultimately rejected, a profound fear continues to gnaw at many French-speaking politicians, journalists, and intellectuals in Quebec: a fear of empty cradles and of a slipping ability to resist assimilation to Anglophone North America. One reason for this is a disturbing tendency of Quebecers to move to other Canadian provinces where economic opportunities appear more promising. Another is the twin-headed beast of demography and immigration.

Prof. Henripin's estimates suggest that the population of Quebec is dropping by 30 percent each generation. He suggests that by the year 2080, only 25 percent of Quebec's population will be descended from today's inhabitants. The rest will be the offspring of immigrants arriving over the next 100 years.

Quebec passed provincial laws in the 1970s to promote the use of French. As a result, immigrants have had to send their children to French-language schools. The idea is to discourage them from living in English only and to thus attach them to the French majority. The Quebec provincial government is the only one in Canada to have a say in matters of immigration.

Some immigrants feel that the move to bring them into the Francophone community reflects a big change here.

``To be considered a real Quebecer in the 1950s or '60s,'' says Antoine Tchipeff, a Bulgarian-Canadian and Quebec's assistant deputy minister of Immigration and Cultural Communities, ``you had to be Catholic, a staunch Quebec nationalist, French-speaking, and working in [a] traditional profession. Today, Quebec society is incomparably more open, and is becoming more open all the time.''

Mr. Tchipeff notes, however, that most immigrants to Quebec settle in Montreal. This means other parts of the province are not in tune with Montreal's multicultural reality. ``The distance between Montreal and Quebec,'' he says, ``is five years.''

Quebec seeks candidates for immigration who are ``francis-ables.'' The term applies to people liable to integrate into the French majority - people from countries with historic links to France, such as Haiti, Morocco, Lebanon, Vietnam, or Laos.

But the immigrants don't necessarily see things that way.

``As far as I am concerned,'' says Soukhinkham Pakdimounivongs, who was a civil servant in Laos before the Pathet Lao takeover in 1975, ``the fact Quebec is a French-speaking society isn't an important reason for Laotians to come here.''

Today Mr. Pakdimounivongs is head of a community organization that is concerned with the 4,500 Laotians in Quebec and nearly 10,000 others across Canada, most of them refugees. He knows how hard it was for them to leave their country. They had to pay an intermediary a year's wages, or about $1,000, to help them to cross the Mekong River in an innertube or on a bamboo raft. Then came years in detention camps in Thailand that Laotians call ``concentration camps.''

``These people are struggling in camps in Thailand,'' he says. ``All they hope is to leave the camps. Whatever country that accepts them, they will go there. ... No, they don't come to Quebec for the French language.''

``You are what you have in your pocket.''

The saying shocked Luis Fernandes the first time he heard it in Montreal. He's not sure if many people think that way, but he finds Quebec more materialistic than his native Brazil. The social worker got his first work experience on a project of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in a shantytown at Copacabana. Then he came to Quebec to finish his studies. Ironically, he ended up giving courses at the Catholic School Commission of Montreal. Mr. Fernandes is planning to return to Rio.

To his surprise, Quebec was not an economic paradise. Poor people live on social aid, he says, ``and they don't look for ways out of their situation, they don't take any more than the weakest initiatives, they lead a very passive lifestyle. They are paralyzed by a system based on consumption and the power of money.''

Lamberto Tassinari is an Italian-born philosopher, novelist, and director of the trilingual (Italian-French-English) magazine, Vice Versa.

Immigration is much on his mind. It was to analyze it critically that he and some friends set up the magazine.

Mr. Tassinari's work is motivated by one thing: ``a desire to speak about immigration and the deep change it implies. What does it mean ... to be recently uprooted, to change places?''

``Immigration is a little laboratory,'' he says. ``It is the loss of centrality, of security, of everything that makes a person feel comfortable in his cultural armor-plating. ... To have one's own language is closely linked to culture. It's a kind of heaviness that makes you racist and limits you.''

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