Every year in early summer our local creamery — which makes by a stretch the best ice cream in Montreal— creates some Saint-Jean-Baptiste concoction. Last year it was fresh blueberry streaks through vanilla; this year they converted their usual soft-serve swirl to white and blue instead. It’s fun; it’s a wink. They did a tribute to the Habs, too, when the team came close in 2021. The ice cream is unfailingly delicious, and I love the gesture. I will allow nationalism for soccer and food, but this year I didn’t want to partake.
The new language law in Québec, Bill 96, hot on the heels of the xenophobic 2019 Bill 21, has left a bad taste in many mouths. Among other absurdities, Bill 96 stipulates that immigrants to Québec will have to access public services exclusively in French after six months, an impossible expectation. The new law completely overlooks the presence and linguistic heritage of Indigenous peoples on the territories that now comprise Québec. Its restrictions and expectations have been lambasted by everyone from Chambers of Commerce, English-speaking community leaders, refugee and immigrant rights groups, medical professionals, artists and cultural workers, et j’en passe… Like several other initiatives rammed through by the right-of-centre Coalition Avenir Québec, the bill pre-emptively invokes the notwithstanding clause: yeah, we know it’s unconstitutional, we just don’t care.
I spoke French two languages before English, though I now write primarily in English — by accidents of life, geography, relationships. That is how language has always worked. I grew up surrounded by wonderful Franco-Ontarians, who were sure of their heritage and fought for it and maintained it and passed it on. Who also code-switched with ease et sans être particulièrement complexé·es. All the immigrants in Northern Ontario, where we lived, sent their kids to French school: there was this whole generation whose parents had had to sacrifice homes, families, and careers, often fleeing horrific political repression or unrest to come work jobs no one else wanted down in the mines, and they were damn skippy going to make sure their children spoke all the languages, and that they had as many degrees and garages as possible. Multilingualism, as an appendage of multiculturalism, was both the key to and the marker of success.
Later, I lived in New Brunswick, where I started working as a translator, because while the Francophones almost all spoke English, most Anglophones, at least those in official or not-for-profit positions twenty years ago in Fredericton, seemed to speak not a lick of French. (Canada’s only bilingual province remains unevenly so: according to the 2016 census, almost three-quarters of Francophones speak both colonial languages, compared to only about 16% of Anglophones.) Back then, on the mid-August weekend that celebrated the retrouvailles, among the music and merriment, there was this wannabe troublemaker who careened around with a megaphone, wrapped up in a Union Jack, bleating vile inanities at the Acadians. The Acadians, meanwhile, gave nary a fig, about Jack or the Anglos. Even while they revendicate the hell out of their rights, they know who they are, secure and celebratory and proud, a stella maris [flag] in every yard across the peninsula and beyond.
Like their Acadian cousins, Québécois·es have reason to celebrate. They overcame the impositions of English rule that robbed them of public and political agency, controlled access to education for generations, and allowed religion to dictate status and appartenance. Yet, ironically, Bill 96 robs Québécois·es of that celebration: it doesn’t feel like much of a party if you have to force others to come, constantly reminding them that they are other, that they will never really belong.
I’ve lived in Montreal for twenty years now. I am a Montrealer, and our kids might grow up to identify as Québécoises, but these days I feel like I live only nominally in Québec. A few years ago, as Harper’s Canada was making no sense at all, I was briefly taken with the possibility of inclusion under Pauline Marois, until it was clear who her nous, nous, nous was puppeteered into including, and especially excluding. I’ve been voting for the socialist-ish Québec solidaire since the party was founded, but their support of Bill 96 is enough of a turnoff for them to lose my vote this fall (though their leadership has promised to adjust the six-month clause in the vanishingly slim event that they form the next government, which seems like agreeing to drink bleach until you can be in charge of the bar).
In my time here I’ve seen and heard unbelievable racism from souchey Québécois·es, who in one breath bemoan their own people’s oppression at the hands of the English and in the next let loose such blushing slurs it’s hard to fathom, and stomach. The right-wing newspapers regularly run what passes for investigative reports about being served in English at a Second Cup in the McGill Ghetto or similar, though in all my years here I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times a service employee has switched from French to English, and when it’s happened it’s usually because they were an immigrant doing a job no one wanted.
And I can count on those same few fingers the people I know here who don’t speak French fluently, or aren’t able to function in French, or aren’t in the process or learning French, or don’t want to learn French. Young people whose mother tongue is English are 86% bilingual. When do they get to be allowed to be Québécois·es?
Language is a treasure, a fount of discovery, a sandbox and a quarry of endless variegated marble to be caressed and carved, and, yes, respected, but also shaped; languages are a wealth. If a language becomes a tool for exclusion and oppression, as French-descendant Québécois·es know all too well, it loses its sheen in a hurry.
Our kids go to French school. At home we speak French, Spanish, English, and a smattering of Croatian; our oldest, who loves Astérix, is currently all about Latin. French is their mother tongue because it was mine. I work mostly in English, and about half of my schooling was in English, but I am not what is laughably qualified as an historic Anglophone, a term that refers to those whose elementary education in English in Canada allows them access to English public schooling in Québec, but which could probably be accurately defined as a descendant of those who won on the Plains of Abraham and who are therefore grudgingly afforded the right to speak the reviled English by the bureaucratic overlords in their fragile rule.
If I can, wherever I am, here or elsewhere, if I can I want to speak the language in which the person in front of me is most comfortable. No? Who doesn’t do that? You’d think these yahoos had never heard of human interaction.
When I lived by a Portuguese dep, it seemed like basic courtesy to conclude the transaction with an obrigada. If some visitor is hoping for directions in a language I can speak, obviously I will switch. Language is fluid, and shifts with relationships. There are Francophone friends with whom I speak English, because we met in English, Anglophones with whom I speak French because our context is francophone, Hispanophones who don’t want to hear me baragouinate while others who indulge and even correct me, etcetera. Language is of course political: its inflections protect status, its democratization signify or threaten popular access, and its quality education has long been provided or withheld according to socioeconomics. But everyday use is a matter of comprehension and courtesy: communication.
Increased communication in French has to happen through comprehension and courtesy. French has to be properly, accessibly, and affordably taught. We have to celebrate it and support it, not impose it. Insecurity and revenge have never in the history of the universe wanted to make anyone do anything.
The unnecessary divisive nonsense of Bill 96 is, for the first time, making me think of faire valoir what access to rights I might have as someone who has schooling in English — getting our kids their English school papers. This would feel like such a loss, renouncing, such grief — not to be able to live a language and let it live, to see no value in multilingualism and diversity and evolution and growth and learning; to be so beholden to old, embattled grievances that they become identity-defining in the worst ways.
If you continue to define yourself by what you are not, I guess it makes sense that you would govern by constantly reminding others of what they are not, of what they will never be. And then you can be scandalized that they don’t want to join your petty little club, and you will be vindicated and alone.
It really is too bad about the ice cream, though.
Katia Grubisic is a freelance writer and translator. Grubisic published a version of this piece on her social media on June 23, 2022.