CANADA

A GROWING FURY

A NEW MOOD OF COMBATIVENESS AND ANGER HAS SURFACED AMONG ANGLOPHONE QUEBECERS

BARRY CAME June 3 1991
CANADA

A GROWING FURY

A NEW MOOD OF COMBATIVENESS AND ANGER HAS SURFACED AMONG ANGLOPHONE QUEBECERS

BARRY CAME June 3 1991

A GROWING FURY

A NEW MOOD OF COMBATIVENESS AND ANGER HAS SURFACED AMONG ANGLOPHONE QUEBECERS

CANADA

The controversy began with a directive penned by an anonymous bureaucrat. The six-page document, blandly entitled “Instruction AG-5491-01,” was prepared late in April in the department of Quebec Education Minister Michel Pagé. Early in May, it was sent to the Lakeshore School Board, which oversees the education of 13,000 mostly English-speaking students in the affluent suburbs of west Montreal. If followed, the directive’s contents would make it more difficult for students to enter English classes in the board’s 28 elementary and high schools. And it prompted a bitter response. “It’s stupid and it’s illegal,” snapped board chairman Joel Hartt. “We don’t live in a police state here.”

That angry reply quickly struck a responsive chord among other English-speaking Quebecers. Two other Montreal-area school boards with large anglophone populations quickly joined Lakeshore’s campaign to resist the new rules, which, for the first time, would force students who cannot prove their eligibility for English education at least 90 days before the school year begins to enrol in French classes instead. And the swiftness with which other anglophone Quebecers rallied to support the

school officials reflected a new development in Quebec politics that reaches far beyond the immediate issue of education. “We are witnessing a change in mood among Anglo Quebecers,” claimed Neil Cameron, one of four members who represent the English-language Equality party in Quebec’s National Assembly. “There is a rising combativeness.” But ironically, the growing feistiness among Quebec anglophones is occurring at precisely the same moment as many francophone leaders are beginning to exhibit a new desire for détente with the province’s English-speaking minority.

Small signs of a changing mood among Quebec’s 800,000 English-speaking citizens have surfaced before, but the first concrete evidence that anglophones are no longer prepared to tolerate the status quo emerged in April, with the release of a survey conducted by the Centre de recherches sur l’opinion publique (CROP). The poll found that 29 per cent of anglophones surveyed predicted that they would not still be in Quebec in five years’ time. Another 46 per cent said that they planned to stay, and the remaining 25 per cent said they did not know. When anglophones were asked to contemplate their future in an independent Quebec, the CROP pollsters reported, 44 per cent said that they would leave, 35 per cent planned to stay and 21 per cent did not know. “That poll really shook some people,” said David Birnbaum, executive director of Alliance Quebec. “It opened French Quebecers’ eyes to the real discontent in our community.”

Many English-speaking Quebecers have taken the findings as vindication for the view that the community must assert its language rights and more actively resist assimilation into the francophone majority. The leading proponent of that view is Reed Scowen, a former Liberal MNA who earlier this year proposed the wider

use of English in a book entitled A Different Vision: The English in Quebec in the 1990s. One sign of Scowen’s growing influence occurred last week when Alliance Quebec officials announced that he was the only candidate for chairman of the 15,000-member organization’s board—a position that will be confirmed when the group holds its annual meeting from June 7 to 9. Scowen told Maclean ’s that he had agreed to accept the position only after Alliance president Robert Keaton agreed to “stop putting our focus on changing laws in Quebec City, and concentrate on building up the strength of our own community.”

Such vocal expressions of Anglo assertiveness have coincided oddly with the new note of moderation being heard on the other side of Quebec’s language divide. Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard, for one, expressed concern last week at the growing evidence of anglophone discontent. The separatist leader urged his fellow francophone Quebecers to

show more generosity towards the province’s English-speaking minority. To that end, Bouchard even suggested moderating Quebec’s restrictive language laws. Declared the former federal Conservative cabinet minister, whose fledgling political organization continues to lead all polls in the province: “We must keep our anglophones. We need them.”

While its reasons may differ, the Liberal Quebec government is also manifesting a new spirit towards English-speaking Quebecers. In one gesture last week, Treasury Board President Daniel Johnson unveiled a program to hire more anglophones for the provincial civil service. The bureaucracy currently allots less than one per cent of its positions to anglophones—who account for 12 per cent of the province’s 6.8 million people. In a move that appeared to be similarly motivated, Premier Robert Bourassa earlier named fluently bilin-

gual Charles Taylor, a prominent McGill University political scientist, to the Conseil de la langue française, an advisory body that oversees the administration of the province’s language laws.

Despite the conciliatory gestures—or perhaps encouraged by them—examples of anglophone irritation have persisted. Taylor, in an interview with the Montreal daily The Gazette shortly after his appointment, publicly denounced portions of Quebec language law as a product of “mass neurosis” on the part of francophone Quebecers and “totally indefensible”—remarks that prompted some members of the separatist Parti Québécois opposition in the National Assembly to demand Taylor’s resignation.

And as the new regulations emanating from the provincial department of education amply demonstrated, the signals being sent to Quebec anglophones were decidedly mixed. “Instruction AG-54-91-01” requires that all new

students be enrolled in French unless they present a certificate issued by Pagé’s department confirming that they meet the existing criterion for English-language education—that the pupil or a parent has previously been educated in English somewhere in Canada. Until the directive, schools could accept a verbal declaration of a student’s eligibility.

Denouncing the additional paperwork as “almost totally impossible to administer,” Hartt said last week that the Lakeshore board would defy the new ruling. A 2%-hour meeting late in the week between the Alliance’s Keaton and Pagé produced no resolution—only a promise to hold more meetings this week. Plainly, as long as Quebec’s restive anglophones continue to encounter such irritants, their rising chorus of dissent seems unlikely to diminish.

BARRY CAME in Montreal