Reflecting on the 1942 conscription crisis that almost tore Canada apart, the late André Laurendeau observed that “it is only when two nations”—meaning Quebec and English-speaking Canada—“confront each other with intense feeling that one can measure to what degree they really exist.” In a phenomenon little noticed in the rest of Canada, Québécois these days are asserting their existence with extraordinary unanimity over an issue that could bear heavily on the future of Confederation. The subject, emblazoned on the buttons thousands of Quebeckers are sporting these days is: Il y a du français dans l’air (There is French in the air). The trouble is—and it is this that has aroused Quebeckers to a quiet fury—there is not enough French in the air. Following the nine-day strike by pilots this summer over bilingual communications, Ottawa banned the use of French on Air Canada flight decks and firmly limited the use of French in ground-to-air communications. Now, in a sharp contrast to the stormy nationalism of earlier years, Quebeckers are up in arms over the issue in a cool, determined but no less ominous way.
Spearheading the protest is the 1,500member association known as les gens de l’air, made up of francophone air and ground crew members and air controllers. Their cause has won the support of Quebeckers from all walks of life and of nearly all political persuasions, both provincial and federal. “Their support comes from all sides, all political parties,” marvels Pierre Deniger, special assistant to federal transport minister Otto Lang. “It’s the first time it’s ever happened. It’s just amazing.” Les gens de l’air have won the unanimous backing of the Quebec National Assembly—an almost unprecedented event—and the support of figures as disparate as singer Pauline Julien and hockey hero Maurice Richard. The provincial government of Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa has contributed $25,000 to help fight federal air communications policies, and the Quebec government’s information ministry is printing press kits for les gens. Newspaper magnate Pierre Peladeau has donated $25,000 worth of advertising space in his newspapers. The demand for priority of French in Quebec echoes from button to billboard. The Quebec Language Board has launched an advertising campaign with the slogan” De plus en plus ça se passe en français (More and more it’s happening in French). Labatt’s Brewery has weighed in with an ad containing the line: Nous sommes six millions. Faut se parler (There are six million of us. We’ve got to talk to each other).
Quebec ministers in Pierre Trudeau’s federal cabinet have rallied to the cause and some federal Liberal caucus members are reappraising their commitment to federalism. Transport minister Jean Marchchand quit over the issue, and Marc Lalonde, Minister of Health and Welfare, has appeared on Quebec television wearing a
gens de l’air button. The issue has even won the support of anglophone opponents of Quebec’s own Bill 22, which made French, Quebec’s sole official language. “I see no difference in what they [les gens de l’air] are fighting for in the air and what we did a year ago on' the ground,” says writer/ broadcaster John Robertson, who led a virulent campaign on CFCF radio against Bill 22’s education clauses. “Both fights assume that this is supposed to be a bilingual country.”
The latest resurgence of a defiant Quebec outburst of linguistic pride is partly a mirror image of an episode that Quebeckers viewed as an act of callous hostility by anglophones. Canadian pilots originally quit their cockpits in June to protest federal moves to extend the use of French ground-to-air communications at Quebec airports. When transport minister Otto Lang arrived at a solution to the dispute, the terms of the settlement were hotly denounced in Quebec as a “capitulation”: the Canadian Air Traffic Controllers Association (CATCA), which has a majority of anglophone members, was given veto powers in the choice of one of the three judges appointed to investigate the safety of bilingual air control procedures in Quebec, and it was agreed that the Canadian Air Line Pilots Association (CALPA), which is also dominated by English-speaking airmen, would be permitted to annex its own comments to the judges’ report.
Since then, the francophone side has gained a victory in one battle. After considering a petition by Serge Joyal, a Liberal
MP from Montreal, a Quebec Superior Court justice ordered Air Canada to allow the use of French among francophone crew members on Air Canada flight decks. But the larger issue of whether French will be allowed in ground-to-air transmissions at major Quebec airports awaits the report of the judges. In the meantime, a raw nerve has been touched in Quebec by the fact that it could ever be against the law for one
French Canadian to speak French to another in the air, or anywhere.
The campaign by les gens de l’air provides a difficult test case for the application of Ottawa’s Official Languages Act, which laid down that federal services would be available to all Canadians in both English and French. The Quebec airmen represent the province’s technological vanguard. They are highly trained, well-paid professionals in a field where Quebec has often in the past been weak. Just as 10 years ago the construction of the Manicouagan dam in Quebec became a matter of pride to Quebeckers, the struggle of les gens de l’air to work in their own language has captured the imagination of francophone Quebec. Their fight has also renewed an old sense of unease—the sense that the progress made by French Canadians on the national scene has been illusory, that Ottawa may prove willing to sacrifice Quebec aspirations to Western hostility, which was how Otto Lang’s “memorandum of understanding” with CATCA and CALPA was viewed in Quebec. “If we lose this fight,” observed a bitter French air controller, “it means we’re just another Louisiana.”
The gens de l’air uproar has put Premier Bourassa’s federalist Quebec government in a tough position. The issue, noted Jácques Parizeau of the separatist Parti Québécois, has left Quebec City only in a position to say that they support the Quebec airmen, but unable to take steps to satisfy their grievances. “They didn’t act like a government,” scoffed Parizeau, “but like a Kiwanis club. They could only say:
‘You’re a good cause, here’s some money.’ ” Quebec Liberals pin the rap on the federal government. “The main protection for francophones is the government of Quebec,” says François Cloutier, a former Liberal who will shortly become Quebec’s chief representative in Paris. “The gens de l’air fight proves it.”
The political risk for Bourassa’s government is that the Parti Québécois can easily take that argument one step further: separate Quebec from Canada and that would bring an end to linguistic disputes between senior and junior levels of government. Nevertheless, Premier Bourassa early this month was openly toying with the possibility of a November election that would capitalize on the euphoria left over from the Montreal Olympic Games and Quebec’s reasonably healthy economic situation, which could worsen before the next election has to be called in 1978. In the meantime, Bourassa had to grapple with a language issue on another level that inevitably could only serve to fuel the fires of anti-French feeling inside and outside of Quebec. That is Bill 22, which is intended to promote the primacy of French in Quebec at the same time that Ottawa is fighting a losing battle to win acceptance for the idea that federal services should be available in both languages across the country. As the school year began in Quebec this fall, hundreds of children of immigrant parents staged sit-ins at Montreal schools to protest government tests that decide whether children can be admitted to English institutions. Now a policy change that Quebec City is considering would abolish language tests—in favor of an across-theboard decision that any child whose mother tongue is not English should be educated in French. GRAHAM FRASER
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