Even if it’s not to blame, we should tone down our rhetoric

“Bienvenue à tous,” the sign read.

In the aftermath of an awful shooting at the Parti Québécois victory party on Tuesday night, commentary has been flying far and wide, people urging calm, people urging unity, people urging a toning down of heated rhetoric, or people not getting the point and blaming everything on some caricature they’ve constructed of people who have different political opinions or who speak a different mother tongue. There’s so many out there I won’t bother trying to link to all of them.

I’m hesitant to join the fray, because to call for a calming of tensions would imply that they are at least in part to blame for what happened. Despite the mad ramblings of a madman being arrested, I find it hard to believe that a disagreement over language policy or sovereignty was the issue here. Quebec has been too peaceful for too long for that to make any sense.

One of the things I love about Quebec is that people can disagree passionately about something so fundamental, so personal and so irrational as national identity but do it peacefully (even if, sometimes, it falls short of respect). Since the October Crisis, we haven’t had political violence here of this nature (well, not much, anyway). We’ve gone through two very stressful referendums and a bunch of close elections, and though we’ve worried about losing our sanity, few have had any reason to worry about losing their lives.

It would be simplistic and, I believe, incorrect to blame this shooting on a language issue. Rather, as evidence continues to come to light about the shooter, it seems more clear that this was a man with mental problems who failed to get help.

We should do it anyway

But we should tone down the rhetoric, not because it might lead to another shooting, but because being more civil in our communication is the right thing to do.

Well before the shooting I was growing concerned with some of the statements being made in newspaper columns and in social media. Not only was there ridiculous generalizing about Quebec anglophones, sovereignists and the rest of Canada, but I got the impression that people were taking things far too seriously.

It’s probably because this is the first election since 1998 won by a sovereignist party, or the first since 2007 where a Liberal victory was not a given. Social media is far more prevalent than it was back then. Plus, newspaper columnists on both sides of the political fence seem to have gone more toward outrageous commentary for its own sake.

What’s worse is that rather than challenge people on their ridiculous exaggerations, Facebook friends and Twitter followers and website commenters have become part of the echo chamber. The cheerleaders are winning over the devil’s advocates.

Make it stop

This, I believe, is how we should step in. It’s nice to call on everyone to tone down our own rhetoric, but I think it would be more constructive to tone down each other’s.

So please, when you hear a friend of yours say that the PQ’s policies on language are akin to “ethnic cleansing,” explain to them that even if by their biased interpretation those policies might fit a loose definition of that term, that they have obviously chosen it as a way of linking the party to some third-world dictator prepared to kill millions in the name of genocide. Explain to them that while you may disagree strongly with Quebec’s language laws or the PQ’s proposals to strengthen them, that is no reason to use such loaded terms.

Et s’il vous plaît, quand vos amis chantent « POLICE POLITIQUE! SSPVM! » expliquer comment cette comparaison est offensive et inutile. Expliquer que même si vous êtes en désaccord avec le projet de loi 78, même si vous pensez que la police de Montréal va trop loin dans leur utilisation de force, qu’ils sont là pour nous protèger, qu’ils ont comme but de respecter la loi, qu’ils veulent rien de moins qu’on participe au démocratie en toute sécurité, et que même si ils font des fautes, c’est très, très loin de ce qui ce passait en Allemagne dans les années 1930.

And please, when you hear one of your friends explain how Pauline Marois wants to “destroy Canada,” explain to them that Quebec has as much of a right to self-determination as any other government. Explain to them that though we may disagree with Quebec leaving Canada, the province cannot be forced to stay inside the federation against its clear will. Explain to them that even if Quebec somehow becomes an independent state, that it plans to have a strong relationship with the rest of Canada, and that even the most hard-core separatists have no wish to see harm come to the rest of the country. And explain to them how Quebec leaving Canada will no more destroy the latter than Canada’s independence in 1867 destroyed Great Britain.

Et s’il vous plaît, quand vous entendez vos amis dire que les anglais au Québec veulent conquérir les québécois, expliquez que nous sommes deux peuples, fils et filles de deux empires européens de siècles passées, qui ont, pour la plupart, les mêmes espoirs pour nos vies et ceux de nos enfants. Expliquez que 95% de la population québécoise parle le français, et que même si la loi 101 peut être le sujet de beaucoup de débats, et même si les conclusions sont que le français au Québec est menacé et il faut agir pour la protèger, que personne ici veut éliminer ce qui nous définissent comme québécois. Expliquez que les anglo-québécois ont leur propre culture, qui n’est pas la même que celui de Toronto, de Vancouver ou de New York. Expliquez que les anglophones qui veulent vivre entièrement en anglais ont déjà déménagé ailleurs, et que ceux qui restent sont encore ici à cause de notre histoire et notre culture dont ils sont aussi fiers.

And please, when you hear one of your friends say Stephen Harper is a dictator or that he hates Canada, explain to them that his party received 40% of the votes cast in the last federal election, that despite all the rhetoric he is still the leader of a centre-right party that has no plans to outlaw abortion, take away universal health care or do anything else that would cause them to lose those suburban Toronto ridings that are key to their parliamentary majority. Explain that while you may worry about where he is taking our country, that we are still governed by a representative democracy with a fully functional judicial system. Explain that if you disagree with Conservative Party policies, then you need to convince their voters not to support them in the next election, and that emotionally-charged hyperbole is going to win over far fewer voters than a reasoned rebuttal of the issues.

S’il vous plaît.


For the sake of my sanity. Pour notre avenir commun. So that we can be proud not only of what we have built together politically, but of the way we have built it.

S’il vous plaît, je nous demande de communiquer entre nous comme des adultes.


UPDATE (Sept. 7): Seems this post is generating some buzz. I spoke with Radio-Canada’s Michel C. Auger about this issue (starts at 31:15), and this post has been republished in Saturday’s Gazette. I was also interviewed on CTV News on Sunday.

And it appears Sophie Durocher at the Journal de Montréal thought the Gazette publishing the piece was hypocritical because of all the other stuff they’ve published. Some on Twitter have pointed out that the Journal de Montréal is a Sun Media publication, and there are plenty of anti-Quebec comments in those papers.

135 thoughts on “Even if it’s not to blame, we should tone down our rhetoric

  1. Fagstein Post author

    “The federal used immigrants abusively.”

    Immigrants and ethnics aren’t the same thing. If Parizeau was referring to some form of fraud, wouldn’t he just say so?

    1. Canada Libre

      He knew there were frauds like we all know now but if he had said something clear about that on the night the referendum was lost that could have caused serious disturbances in the streets. Don’t you think ? Parizeau could just be vague about that at the time.

  2. SamuelB

    When I look at the last posts of JK, Jack and Samm, I realize that there is sometimes some work to do to bring peace between our two communities. So much frustration and false assumptions ! 300 bombs in the sixties? That is a little bit scary but I know that is not what the majority think.

  3. Quebecois NDP separatiste

    Just a comment.. I heard a lot of anglophone talking about “freedom of language” as if outside of Quebec people are free to speak and use any language they want.

    In the real life, that’s completely false. I am not free to order in french in a restaurant in Toronto. Maybe in theory I am but in practice I won’t be able to get served. It is the reality that matter not the abstract choice that in practice doesn’t matter.

    Do you people think that as a francophone if I am hired my Research In Motion in Waterloo and I want to write my software code and design document in french they will let me do it.
    While it is true that there is no “law” against it, the effect is the same.. they wont let me do it. They will even fire me if I insist.

    Do you people think that Japanese people can send their children to a Chinese or english public school in Japan?

    Reality check people….

    1. Fagstein Post author

      I am not free to order in french in a restaurant in Toronto. Maybe in theory I am but in practice I won’t be able to get served.

      This is exactly the argument, though. People are against government regulation of language, and would rather let the market decide.

      1. Jean Naimard

        For 200 years, the “market” “decided” for us and it led us to near extinction, and we experienced extreme poverty and disenfranchisement.

        This is why we like big government: we don’t trust the “market” one little bit.

      2. Canada Libre

        ” People are against government regulation of language, and would rather let the market decide ”

        Do you mean that more than one hundred years of anti-Canadien apartheid regulations in the roC to eradicate French from there was wrong ? Its so easy to say ”let the market decide” now that the francophonie has almost completely disappeared…

        We, in Québec, are a large French speaking majority, we want to live, learn, work, shop and get services in our language and we need regulations to achieve that. Do you say that it is wrong ? If so, demonstrate that.

        1. Fagstein Post author

          Do you mean that more than one hundred years of anti-Canadien apartheid regulations in the roC to eradicate French from there was wrong?

          I’m not familiar enough with the history of language-related regulations in the rest of Canada to determine whether your apartheid comparison is fair or not, but yes, I believe Canada’s respect for its two official languages has grown immensely over the past century.

          We, in Québec, are a large French speaking majority, we want to live, learn, work, shop and get services in our language and we need regulations to achieve that.

          No one questions the right of people in Quebec to be able to get services in French.

          1. Canada Libre

            Merci Steve. We agree.

            Some of the measures taken in the roC to eliminate the francophony are documented there : http://www.republiquelibre.org/cousture/PROV.HTM

            It`s only when Québec enforced bill 101 and the federal needed a legal background to fight that – in the 1980s – that it forced other provinces to get clean with their language regulations e.g. ; Let french education be legal again and finance it fairly.

  4. Rachel-Lynn

    Thanks, Steve. Someone shared this on facebook and I enjoyed reading it. It can be hard for those of us in the rest of Canada to see what’s happening in Quebec. . . .you make it sound possible to be reasonable.

  5. Steven

    126 comments (or 127 with mine) unfortunately the link to read them just sends me to a blank page. Would be curious to see what kind of comments you received.

    One problem we have here in Quebec, we tend to turn everything and anything into a language issue. Not all of our problems are related to it. Student protest/strike for example. Does it really have anything to do with it? Is it really necessary to drag the language issue in this story? Of course not. Sure more French students are on strike. That makes senses for the simple fact there are more French universities. But some people seem to think otherwise..oh well, off the subject now. (I used this example as I was recently criticized by some students for this exact comment and was rewarded with a colourful array of “your English” comments)

    Going around the links provided in this blog post, it’s pretty clear (in my opinion <-key phrase here) that many didn't get the message. The "language issue" in Quebec is one of passion that is past down from generation to generation. Mothers and fathers tell their kids how "the English" did this and that. The reverse also applies I must add. Doing what you suggest will be, and is, hard to accomplish. When you are passionate about something, be it right or wrong, one cannot but use emotion to convey their message. I think the comments written on Mme Sophie Derocher's blog can attest to this. What astonishes me is the amount of hateful comments, from both sides, in the comments section of that blog. Hateful comments about a blog post asking people not to use hateful comments… o_0

    So yes, being civil toward each other, especially when speaking about "the issue", is a must for our collective sanity. I truly believe once we can remove the hateful comments and absurd comparisons we can solve this. Once this can be accomplished, Quebec will be able to resolve some of the other pressing issues such as our provincial debt (or national debt depending on how you want to look at it) for example.

    I'm going to stop now, as I feel I'm no longer making any sense. Another thing we should all learn: Know when to stop talking.

    Now before anyone criticizes my point of view on all this, I'm a bilingual Francophone with a very English last name. So English in fact (well actually Irish), most Anglophones have troubles pronouncing it correctly. So you can imagine how difficult it is for the French community. For this since childhood I've been categorized as an Anglophone. No one believes me, many still think I was born somewhere in Ontario. Although funny at times, hard not to feel rejection from your own community when they consider you an outsider. If anyone has a unique understanding of the situation, it's people like me. People that truly share both cultures. My father is an English Canadian and my mum is a French Canadian from the Province of Quebec.

  6. David Pinto

    The front page of The Suburban of August 29, 2012 is headlined The Suburban’s English debate.
    There is an article in which Jean Charest answers specific questions, side-by-side with another article in which Francois Legault answers the same questions.
    At the bottom of that presentation the following appears next to a picture of Pauline Marois:
    Editor’s Note:
    After Pauline Marois refused to participate in an English television debate and refused an English radio debate, we thought that she could not possibly refuse to answer written questions at her leisure. Well, she refused even this form of communication. What does her refusal say to our community?
    Steve, why don’t you ask Pauline Marois to tone down HER rhetoric?

    1. Marc

      Steve, why don’t you ask Pauline Marois to tone down HER rhetoric?

      Obviously you didn’t read Steve’s piece fully. He asked for everyone on all sides to tone it down.

  7. wkh

    133 comments holy shit.

    I love you my friend for this post, even if I do call you the reason for Bill 101.

    Personally I want to know where my francophriends are. I know they all think of the PQ in general as the annoying uncle at the party always going on about something, but whom they love anyway, because he doesn’t really mean that he thinks darkies should live on that side of town… but dude he totally just said that… and they said nothing. The PQ IS them, and they aren’t fighting to change it. wtf?


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