CANADA

'English in its place'

BRENDA BRANSWELL April 28 1997
CANADA

'English in its place'

BRENDA BRANSWELL April 28 1997

'English in its place'

CANADA

In Quebec’s anglophone circles, it seems that as soon as one language controversy ends, another erupts. The latest dustup occurred after the joint administration of the Royal Victoria and Montreal General hospitals sent staff a voice-mail directive on April 11 advising them to address patients in French first, and to begin their voice mail messages in French. The hospi-

tals, which have bilingual status but are widely viewed as anglophone institutions, issued the directive after receiving complaints from a few patients about inadequate French-language service. But what the hospitals considered a courtesy, some anglophones viewed as an affront. The hospitals then issued a statement pointing out that the French-first guideline has been in place for years and that both languages should be used when first greeting a patient. But some anglophones remained angry, complaining that the hospitals’ stance only served to erode the position of a group already under siege. “We’ve lost so much of our visibility in Montreal,” said English-rights activist Howard Galganov, who organized a protest outside the Royal Victoria late last week.

“We can’t afford to lose any more.” Quebec’s sour post-referendum mood has not improved since Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard’s conciliatory speech to anglophones at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre in March, 1996. At the time, some anglophones questioned the premier’s sincerity; many now say that Bouchard showed his true stripes last February when he publicly blamed “radicals” in the anglophone community for its poor relations with the Parti Québécois government. But Michael Hamelin, president of the anglophone-rights group Alliance Quebec, suggests that, on the contrary, language disputes continue to fester because Bouchard believes he must placate hardliners within the Parti Québécois. There are, Hamelin says, many reasons for anglophones to be concerned—among them, the PQ government’s plan to bring back the so-called language police to ensure adherence to the province’s laws. “At every turn,” he says, “the linguistic policy of the Quebec government has been very, very clear about putting the English language in its place.” He cites as an example a directive in November to Quebec civil servants discouraging the use of English when dealing with the public.

Others, though, say anglophone anger is overblown. Laval University political scientist Louis Balthazar believes that the linguistic situation in Montreal is better now than it was a decade ago, even though “the reactions have never been as strong as they are today.” Leaders in the anglophone community are motivated by an agenda that goes beyond protecting anglophone rights, he claims. “They want to weaken the Quebec government by all means possible,” Balthazar argues. That includes trying to make a case that, in the event of Quebec sovereignty, partition of the province would be a justifiable way to protect the anglophone community. “All this to me has one target,” he says, “to destabilize a provincial government that will call a referendum in a few years.” Quebec’s quarrels over language, it seems, are still far from over.

BRENDA BRANSWELL