Publish at February 14 2022 Updated March 09 2022

Living in Quebec without speaking French, myth or reality?

Priority to English or French?

Can we live in Quebec without speaking French? In this Canadian province, where French has nevertheless been the only official language since 1974, the language issue remains omnipresent in the Quebec political debate.

What priority is really given to French? Isn't it relegated to second place in relation to English, despite all the efforts to promote it? Is the French language of Molière really regressing in the Belle Province to the benefit of the language of Shakespeare?

I remember

While this famous phrase is well known in the province of the blue and white fleurdelys flag (and remembered by tourists since it adorns the license plate of cars in Quebec), few people know the full quote, which is

"I remember that I was born under the lily, but grew up under the rose" (modernized version of the old French).

This phrase, uttered by Eugène-Étienne Taché (1836-1912), assistant commissioner of Crown lands and architect of Quebec City's Parliament Building, has become the motto of the eponymous province. This motto alone sums up the linguistic conflict intrinsic to Quebec society: "Born under the lily" refers to the French presence (the fleur de lys being the floral emblem of France) at the time of the founding of New France, while "growing up under the rose" (the rose being the floral emblem of England) corresponds to the British occupation of the territory between 1760 and 1840. From then on, even if the French language was tolerated at that time, the conflictual cohabitation was only beginning, and would continue in the future.

Priority to the French language

If it is only since 1974 that Quebec has for only and unique official language the French, it is only three years later, in 1977, under the government of René Lévesque that the Charter of the French language and its famous bill of law 101 is established. The objective of this one is to affirm the primacy of French in the public place and in the fields of work and education.

It should be noted that this law was put in place to fight against the preference of adopting English by immigrants upon their arrival, and this, as early as the 60'. Today, the government still emphasizes the use of French, so much so that an official institution has been created, the Secretariat for the Promotion and Enhancement of the French Language. The latter works closely with other actors who are committed to defending French: the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF), the Commission de toponymie (CT) and the Conseil supérieur de la langue française (CSLF).

In addition, campaigns named "Au service de la langue française," aimed at professionals, but also "Partage ton français," aimed at immigrants, make a point of promoting the language. The tone is set: in Quebec, we speak French!

Meanwhile in Montreal

The Quebec-Montreal rivalry has always existed and it is in the essence of the language that this rivalry is only amplified, because the numbers are frightening: less than 50% of the inhabitants of the island of Montreal have French as their mother tongue (2016 census)!

Certainly, looking at a larger scale, that of "greater Montreal", with its suburbs, the figures are a little more generous: 83.4%... compared to 92.4% in the whole of the rest of Quebec... This threshold below 50% could be explained by the pandemic of COVID and the exodus of Montrealers who have chosen, telecommuting helping, to settle in the region.

According to other statistics, 85% of these departures would be native francophones and would represent no less than 71,500 people since the beginning of the pandemic in 2019. Certainly, the immigration of francophones should have raised these figures a bit. However, this is not the case, because, if to immigrate now to Quebec you need a good level of French, the novelty lies in the fact that native French speakers (French, Belgian and Swiss) immigrants now choose in majority to settle outside of Montreal, further contributing to the decline of French in this city.

I remember (and it's not ironic to use this turn of phrase!) an article in a Quebec City daily newspaper in 2021 where a whole survey was done to show how ubiquitous English was in Montreal. The numbers spoke for themselves and the reporter was offended to be answered in English when visiting stores and other restaurants in Montreal.

I myself have unfortunately experienced the same thing: impossible to get service in French in fast food restaurants and even to park in the city, not to mention native French speakers who, "to make it right," prefer to speak in English in public! Several of my immigrant friends (but who speak French very well) who live there admit to me that they work only in English, out of "ease" (understand by this, "since they are immigrants, they speak English better than French no doubt"), at the request of the company, even though these are 100% Quebec offices.

"What's the point of learning French, everyone understands and speaks English in Montreal!" This is what newcomers who decide to stay there often say to themselves... until they change cities and there they discover the Francophone reality. For more than 400 years we have been speaking French in the North American continent where English is king, so let's continue to give priority to our French language, otherwise in a few years, it really risks being annihilated by English. 

Sources and illustrations

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