Quebec frets about its French language, culture
Robert Melnbardis ,
Published: Tuesday, October 30, 2007
MONTREAL (Reuters) – Quebec is fretting about the future of its dominant French language and culture in a debate that some people worry has veered into a public backlash against minorities, immigrants and non-Francophones.
The heated discourse over how much “reasonable accommodation” the mostly French-speaking province of 7.5 million should afford its religious, ethnic and linguistic minorities prompted Quebec Premier Jean Charest to call for an end to the “siege mentality.”
In a letter published in Quebec newspapers on Tuesday, Charest said Quebec's international reputation for openness and tolerance was at stake.
“People are wondering what's happening here at a time when we need to open our doors to others because we're short of workers, because some of our regions are in a demographic decline and because we're having fewer children,” Charest wrote.
In his comments, Charest deplored the Quebec Identity Act, draft legislation crafted by the opposition Parti Quebecois.
The PQ, a separatist party that wants Quebec to leave Canada, proposes withholding “Quebec citizenship” from immigrants, including those from other parts of Canada, who not have an “appropriate” knowledge of the French language.
Failure to demonstrate French language skills would prevent immigrants from holding public office, raising funds for a political party or petitioning the legislature to redress a grievance.
A senior cabinet minister called identity proposal a “pile of manure.”
“The two classes of citizen — it's against everything we believe in the Liberal Party,” Economic Development Minister Raymond Bachand said during a televised discussion.
Legal experts have opined that the draft bill is mostly likely unconstitutional and stands no chance of becoming law.
Immigrant groups have called it a worrisome sign of intolerance among old-stock Catholic Francophones. Some 80 percent of Quebec is French-speaking and only about 10 percent of its residents were born outside the province.
Yet a recent poll showed that a majority of Quebec's Francophone voters support the PQ proposal and party leader Pauline Marois wants Charest allow a parliamentary debate on the issue.
“It's a draft bill that, despite what certain people think, was prepared with care, after having been evaluated,” Marois told reporters in Quebec City.
The question of national identity is always at the forefront of Quebec politics, but more so these days because expectations are that Charest's Liberal minority government could fall next spring.
Support from the predominant Francophone electorate is key to any party taking power with a majority.
In the meantime, the provincial commission sounding out public opinion on reasonable accommodation issues continues to tour the province, and raise eyebrows for intolerant comments espoused by some of those who appear before it.
Charest created the commission in March after some Quebecers opposed measures such as allowing Muslim girls to wear headscarves in soccer or martial arts competitions.
The most glaring incident came in January when the small town of Herouxville published a “code of life” to remind immigrants that in Quebec, it is not permissible to stone women to death, burn them alive or throw acid on them.
One man told the commission hearing this week that only those who spoke French should be able to get a driver's license or access to Quebec's publicly funded health-care system.
Another said it was costing the province millions of dollars to ensure that kosher food was available in Quebec.
That brought a swift rebuke from commission co-chairman Gerard Bouchard.
“Those are anti-Semitic comments. It's unacceptable and it's undemocratic,” Bouchard told the audience.