Switzerland uses four official languages. Two of them – Schwyzerdütsch, a German dialect, and Romansch, descended from Latin – are unique to Switzerland. Neither they, nor French, nor Italian, are threatened by English, which is also spoken by most Swiss.
But, in Quebec, we are repeatedly told this myth that French is threatened and English should be suppressed so French can survive. The province is surrounded entirely by English speakers, but English proficiency is disappearing in the hinterland. Fewer and fewer people can write in English. As a result, Quebec risks becoming a “hermit state,” increasingly isolated from Canada and the rest of the world.
If English is the world language, it is because the world has become a unified place. The Internet and air travel have made distance irrelevant. To cut a population off from communication with the rest of the world is to deny them a role in it, to impose on them a severe handicap in relations with other people, to rob them of opportunities.
If the Quiet Revolution freed French Canadians from control of the Roman Catholic Church and subservience to foreign investors, the language frenzy is reversing Quebec’s progress. Each year puts it further behind in this rapidly evolving world.
There are other factors in Quebec’s slide.
The early successors to the clergy after the Quiet Revolution were the labour unions and modified socialism. The latest figures show 22.4 per cent of Quebeckers taking home a government paycheque (above the national average) and 39.3 per cent remaining unionized (the country’s highest rate). Unlike the private sector, pensions are indexed to inflation. As a result, Quebec has become highly indebted – its debt ratio (federal and provincial combined) is similar to some of the most indebted European countries. The province also has some of the highest taxes anywhere – and we are now told that the Parti Québécois will raise rates for the top tax brackets again, even retroactively.
There’s also the state of the province’s infrastructure. It’s estimated that Montreal, the province’s engine for industry and revenue, needs nearly $1-trillion to rebuild and repair its roads and bridges. How can you keep wealth coming to Quebec when it has high taxes and crumbling infrastructure? Montreal used to be the top head-office city of Canada. Depending on methodology, it now ranks as low as fourth. What highly qualified immigrants will come to replace those who have left?
Discouraging people to learn or use English only accelerates this alienation. Even in France and other French-speaking countries, English learning is on the increase. Almost nowhere on Earth is it discouraged, except Quebec.
Let’s also speak of independence, the grail of the PQ’s aspirations. Again, look at Switzerland.
Swiss citizens are possibly the most democratic on Earth. Despite a population smaller than Quebec’s, they have some of the highest standards of living and education anywhere. They have more large head offices of an international character than all of Canada, even with few natural resources. They have a highly valued currency but maintain 2 per cent unemployment and a strong manufacturing sector. Taxation is low relative to neighbouring countries. Prosperity is distributed evenly. They do not share in the euro zone’s problems. While religiously divided, they have few tensions.
If Quebec had Switzerland’s profile, even I would vote for independence.
But Quebec and its divisive politics are at the other extreme. A vital element in its isolation is the myth that French is endangered. This myth is cutting it off from the rest of the world, even as the rest of the world is becoming ever more integrated.
Stephen A. Jarislowsky is chief executive of Jarislowsky Fraser Ltd. in Montreal.