I’m getting a bit tired of the language debate in Quebec.
I feel a bit guilty saying it, because the neverending battle has become so central to the province’s identity that it’s almost like I can’t call myself a true Québécois unless I have a spot on the front lines. What does it mean to be a Quebecer if not to constantly argue about French vs. English, federalism vs. sovereignty, Liberal vs. PQ/BQ?
The most popular post on this blog, by far, in terms of comments is a criticism I made in 2007 about anglo rights crusader Howard Galganov. The comment mark on that post just passed 500 (all of which I had to individually approve), and new comments are added every day. Discussion of the statements made in the post or of Galganov himself have long fallen by the wayside. The four participants who keep the thread going just yell at each other, call each other racist and compare each other to Hitler in their discussions of the great divide. I block those comments that go too far, but if I deleted those that I didn’t think advanced the conversation enough, over 90% would disappear immediately. At this point, I’m just watching the counter go up, in awe about how much time people can waste trying to change the mind of someone who is obviously never going to agree with you.
I’m an anglophone. Even though I’ve lived in Quebec my entire life, I’m seen as the enemy. No different than the Rest of Canada. It’s assumed that I’m just waiting for my chance to make it in Toronto or New York, and that I don’t really belong here because I don’t really want to be here. Though I love Quebec as much for its culture (which is inescapably intertwined with its language) as its politics (which is inescapably intertwined with language issues), because I use English more than French in my daily life I’m set aside from real Quebecers.
Once, in a conversation with some young francophone journalists, I was asked about my opinion on Quebec politics in a way that gave me the impression I was introducing these people to a culture they’d only read about. I felt like I was giving them a sociology lesson on what it’s like to be an anglo Quebecer.
One of the things that was odd about the conversation is that it came a bit out of nowhere. People don’t stop me in the street to debate politics. I’ve never been refused service at a commercial establishment on account of my language. Francophone bloggers link to me, and I link to them, with little regard to the fact that our posts are in different languages, unless the thing were talking about is language politics. Quebecers are more concerned with daily life, gossiping or getting laid than they are convincing others of their point of view on separation.
I got dragged into a brief debate about my positions on Bill 101 recently, and though I have serious issues with some of its provisions that seem more anti-English than pro-French (and the psychological factor and selective enforcement only exacerbate the anti-English sentiment), part of me wanted to scream out at one point: “I don’t care!” I can read French signs fine. I can communicate fine in that language (just don’t ask me to write in it for a living). In that sense, Bill 101 doesn’t really affect me. Though I cringe at how much the government is spending on language enforcement rather than language education, I think there are far more pressing issues for it to deal with than reforming our language law.
I bring this up because of a couple of debates going on that really make me wonder where Quebec’s priorities lie.
La Presse’s André Pratte had to apologize on Friday for noting that Michael Sabia, the ex-Bell CEO who has just been named to head the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, is (a) not a Quebecer and (b) doesn’t speak French very well. It seems he was wrong on both counts. Sabia has lived in Quebec for 16 years (“how long do you have to live in Montreal before you become a Quebecer?“) and his French, while accented, is fine. He attributed his first error to “un détestable réflexe québécois” – namely that if you’re anglo, you’re not a Quebecer. Believe me, this is a big problem. It’s not just in Quebec, of course. People, media and PR agencies all over Canada will look at someone with brown skin and assume they’re an immigrant. In the U.S., if you’re latino, it’s assumed you’re an illegal immigrant or the descendant of one.
I accept Pratte’s apology, but he wasn’t the only one to bring this up. Sabia needed to defend himself from an attack by Bernard Landry, saying he’s now chosen to live in Quebec three times since 1993.
UPDATE: No, wait, La Presse has gone back to saying he doesn’t speak French well enough for their liking.
Now we know why there are rules against political interference in the Caisse’s affairs. If something as petty as province of birth is a political issue (and deemed more important than making money for Quebec pensioners) then who knows how many ways 125 MNAs could figure out to screw with the system and doom our finances in order to maintain political correctness.
As Martin Patriquin points out, “Quebec must be the only place in the world where it actually matters what language money speaks.”
Not just money, but pucks.
Jeu de puissance
The other debate, which has just started, is over who will fill Guy Carbonneau’s shoes as head coach of the Canadiens. For any of the other 29 NHL teams, the only criterion would be the ability to coach a team of players to a Stanley Cup victory. (Well, that and not being a child molester, hockey gambling addict or 9/11 terrorist, I guess.) But in Montreal, they want to add another: the ability to speak French. And because former Hamilton Bulldogs coach Don Lever is a prime candidate (he was promoted to Habs assistant coach when Carbonneau was fired), there’s already discussion that, no matter how good a hockey coach he might be, he can’t get the job because he won’t be able to speak properly to the media and to fans. Even Bob Gainey, who speaks French fine but with a strong accent, isn’t good enough for the people at RDS.
The Gazette had a little fun with that Saturday, suggesting some intensive training courses and giving a list of simple phrases for an anglo coach to learn.
This debate should come as no surprise. The same debate has been going on ever since Saku Koivu was promoted to be the Canadiens’ captain. Patrick Lagacé complained about it when he was at the Journal (though he’s softened his stance at La Presse – Lagacé the old softy disputes this in a comment below) in a column more notable in media circles for its hilarious follow-up. Of course, there are plenty of NHL players who don’t speak a word of English, but nobody complains about that. After all, their job is to play hockey, not to give speeches. But, in defence of this particular point, there aren’t any NHL captains who can’t at least carry on a conversation in the language of Gary Bettman.
And then there’s debate any time you see a trade, a call-up, a healthy scratch, or even a line-change which alters the makeup of the team to make it less francophone. It doesn’t matter what Guillaume Latendresse, Maxim Lapierre or Mathieu Dandenault’s skills are. What matters is that they can be interviewed in French on RDS during intermission, and therefore they must be on the team and in the lineup. For these people, a Patrice Brisebois is more valuable than an Andrei Markov, and certainly more than a Mike Komisarek.
Fans can demand these things. It’s their right. And Canadiens fans aren’t exactly known for their logic or cool-headedness anyway. And it’s the government’s right to demand that the head of the Caisse is a Quebec-born francophone who watches Star Académie.
But when you say that language and nationality is more important than skill, you can’t complain when you don’t get results compared to others. You can’t complain that the Caisse is losing more money than other pension funds when you passed over a qualified anglophone for a less qualified francophone for the job. You can’t complain that the Canadiens failed to bring home their expected 25th Stanley Cup when you cut the field of head coach candidates to less than half of what it was so that RDS viewers don’t feel uncomfortable.
In the United States, the military is mocked because it fires gay Arabic translators even when it’s in desperate need of them. We make fun of the Americans because they put what you are above what you know, to their own disadvantage.
Sometimes, I wonder if Quebec is any better.
Except, I’m tired of debating the point. So I’m just going to hit “publish” and move on to something more interesting.