Philippe Couillard, the Quebec Liberal Leader, is probably telling the truth when he says, “There’s not a single parent in Quebec that doesn’t hope for their kids to be bilingual.” But Pauline Marois, the Premier and Leader of the PQ, finds it advantageous to portray Mr. Couillard’s words as heresy, and damning evidence that “he is truly a risk to our language and culture.” It’s the kind of distortion and fear-mongering that has marked the election campaign.
Mr. Couillard is saying that Quebec students, starting in Grade 6, should have greater opportunities to learn English; he is not going so far as to say that English must be compulsory for all Grade 6 pupils. Rather, he wants it to be more accessible and widespread. He wants parents to have options.
The Liberal Leader horrified many when he made the following common-sense observation: that an ability to speak English is advantageous for everyone in the labour force, and not only for elite professions. Mr. Couillard is proposing greater bilingual educational options as an opportunity for economic advancement; his opponents portray it as an attempt to undermine French. But learning a second language does not mean unlearning one’s first language.
It is hard to imagine such a response in the rest of Canada to schools offering French immersion programs – they are usually oversubscribed, not shunned – or Mandarin, or Spanish.
In fact, the PQ government itself has not further restricted the teaching of English as a second language in French-language schools. But the PQ’s electoral rhetoric – and the rhetoric of a number of labour-union leaders – are cynically treating Mr. Couillard’s views as a threat to the French language. For example, Mario Beaulieu, the president of Société-Saint-Jean-Baptiste of Montreal, accuses Mr. Couillard of “flat-on-your-faceism,” in other words, grovelling.
Ms. Marois evidently believes that Quebec voters suffer from cognitive dissonance: Parents want their children to learn the world’s most important second language, but simultaneously fear that, if they do, French will be threatened. Let us hope that she is mistaken, and that Mr. Couillard’s more logical approach prevails.