Bonjour-Hi! These two greetings, French and English, are often rolled into one in downtown Montreal’s shops and cafes.
For some in Quebec’s most cosmopolitan city, this hybrid welcome is just a very nice – arguably a very Canadian – way of making customers feel welcome, whatever language they speak.
For others, it is a grating, insensitive and shallowly corporate reminder of the global supremacy of English in a predominantly Francophone city. So much so they want it banned.
Language is at the heart of politics in Quebec, a visceral, deeply personal defining issue. And it is back in the headlines.
New legislation, Bill 96, to protect French is passing through Quebec’s national assembly. “Bonjour-Hi” will survive, for now, after speculation that it would not.
The proposed law is, nevertheless, dramatic: it will amend the constitution of Canada to have Quebec formally recognised as a nation, and with French as its sole language. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s bilingual prime minster, acquiesces to this.
Bill 96 continues the work of Bill 101, the paradigm-shifting 1970s language legislation of the pro-independence Parti Québécois or PQ.
The latest development looks, from afar, like nation-building. But it is not the PQ, the Péquistes, who are behind this historic nationalist project.
In fact, it is not “nationalists” at all, at least not in our Scottish usage of the word. It is unionists. Well, kinda.
For years now, a fair few political types have insisted on seeing Quebec, much like Catalonia, as a sort of proxy for our own constitutional battles.
Pro-UK campaigners, especially, have used Canada as a sort of rhetorical comfort blanket.
When polls go against them, when the SNP just keeps on winning, unionists take heart from the way those they see as their Canadian counterparts came back from behind to stop Quebec independence in the photo-finish 1995 referendum.
But there is a big problem with these comparisons: as Bill 96 shows, Quebec’s politics just does not break the way Scotland’s does.
Pro-independence parties such as the PQ are called sovereigntists. Their opponents, those who want to keep Quebec in Canada, such as Mr Trudeau’s Liberals, are known as federalists. But sovereigntists and federalists can both try to tap Quebec nationalism.
Ailsa Henderson, a Canadian-Scottish professor of political science at Edinburgh University, explained. “One key distinction between Quebec and Scotland is that, historically, the main rivals for government, on opposing sides of the constitutional divide, were both nationalist. Both agreed that Quebec was a nation,” she said. Quebec’s Liberals, for example, remind Prof Henderson of Welsh Labour, which has embraced small-n nationalism and connected better with the electorate than its Scottish counterpart.
But Quebec is not just about federalists versus sovereigntists. It is way more complicated than that. The nation-province since 2018 has been ruled by a party, Coalition Avenir Québec, which has sought to transcend the old constitutional division.
CAQ is conservative; it is autonomist; and it is profoundly nationalist. And it is behind Bill 96 and those constitutional amendments.
“Even those newer parties offering to leave behind constitutional debates seek greater autonomy for Quebec,” said Prof Henderson. “At a minimum, this entails a rigorous defence of the right of the provincial government to make policy decisions in its own areas of competence, and the right to be heard within the federation.”
There is a lot of talk in the UK about ‘muscular unionism’, usually understood as a bid to clip the wings of devolution and assert a British identity.
Well, it seems to me as if Canada is facing “muscular autonomism’, an attempt to push provincial powers as far as they will go short of independence and champion québécité.
François Legault, the CAQ founder and premier of Quebec, is an old Péquiste.
He was once asked why his former party lost the last election. “People in Quebec are against sovereignty,” he replied, in English, adding: “You don’t need to be a sovereigntist to be proud of being a Quebecker and be proud to defend our values. We have to make the difference between sovereignty and defending our identity.”
Bill 96 has its critics. PQ voices bristle that nothing has been done to prevent those “Bonjour-Hi” greetings. Montreal tech lobbyists warn the language of computing and the internet is English.
A chief of a Mohawk people – who are more than familiar with cultural and linguistic oppression – described the proposed law as “nothing short of a second colonisation of First Nations”.
But the quote that stood out for me came from Marlene Jennings, president of an umbrella group representing Quebec’s Anglos, its English-speaking minority. “This is a closed-in, narrow vision of Quebec that is increasingly distancing itself from the rest of Canada,” she said.
Now I don’t think there is anything “closed-in” about speaking or protecting French. But what if Anglo-Canada tires of CAQ’s muscular autonomism? How far can Quebec push its nationhood without undermining Canada’s? And where, for federalists, is the line Quebec cannot cross?
Michael Keating, professor of politics at Aberdeen University, admits these questions have expert commentators stumped. Quebec – and Canada – are again uncharted territory.
“Support for independence has fallen but nation-building has continued with the recent constitutional moves to recognise Quebec as a nation within Canada and French as the only official language,” Prof Keating said.
“At the same time, the present Quebec government has pursued a more culture-based and less inclusive form of nationalism than that of its pro-independence predecessors.”
Would Quebeckers turn back to sovereigntism if federalists push back on autonomy?
The belle province has, after all, swung dramatically back and forth on independence over the years.
Mr Trudeau has taken some flack over the constitutional implications of Bill 96. But some Canada watchers say his stance makes sense. Better, the theory goes, to have an autonomous “nation in Canada” than a country split in two by a sovereign Quebec.
Rare recent surveys suggest backing for independence hovers, safely from a federalist point of view, in the thirty-something-per-cent range. But things change fast in Quebec, which is famous for its electoral swings. Nation-building can quickly turn to state-building.
And if it does, there is bound to be a cheesy Anglo-French way to mark the parting.
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