This week in Quebec, Pauline Marois formally opened the fall legislative session with a firm tone on two priorities: the fight against corruption, and drafting a budget in the context of a difficult economic situation.
But, with a PQ government, identity and culture can’t be far behind. It’s also expected that before the year is out, a new Charter of the French Language will be unveiled, which will include major reforms to Bill 101 “while respecting the anglophone community” – although Ms. Marois seems to have backtracked on the more controversial of her electoral promises to restrict access to English-language colleges.
In fact, something interesting is happening on the language front. The first signal was the appointment of Jean-François Lisée as minister with a hat trick of new responsibilities: international affairs, the Montreal region, and relations with anglophones.
Mr. Lisée, a former adviser to Jacques Parizeau and architect of Lucien Bouchard’s famous Centaur Theatre address to the English-speaking community in the wake of the 1995 referendum, is a well-known journalist and author. Shedding his former image as an intrepid “Tintin,” ready to solve any backroom problem, he emerged as a star candidate for the PQ this year with his heated rhetoric about the fate of the French language on the island of Montreal.
While Ms. Marois’s forays in la Francophonie, and the inquiry into corruption in Montreal’s construction industry have been keeping the multitasking minister busy, Mr. Lisée – with a new nickname of “Angloman” – is popping up all over the place in the anglophone community. He made a surprise visit to the English Montreal School Board – to the shock of its members, who rarely get such attention. He has sought out the Quebec Community Groups Network, which represents English-language minorities across the province. And, for the past few weeks, he has been holding informal, in camera sessions with English-speaking leaders from a wide swathe of sectors and institutions.
What are they telling him? That they are concerned about the same thing as francophones: namely, the fate of their language community. The latest census numbers show that the relative number of English-speakers in Quebec is declining, and their institutions – especially schools – are suffering from these demographic shifts. They are also concerned about the future of the younger generation: specifically, that while they aspire to be citizens of the world, it is crucial to feel a real sense of belonging to Quebec. For that to happen, there needs to be movement on two fronts: a stronger voice for anglophone interests in Quebec political life, and a secure economic situation for the province as a whole, and Montreal in particular.
Most English-speaking Quebeckers view the PQ’s sovereignty mission as a hindrance to both aspirations. This is why their political clout, for the most part, has been exerted within federalist parties; indeed, English-speaking cabinet ministers under the Charest Liberals were often accused of having “laryngitis” when it came to language and education issues. But now, the PQ government is actively seeking out this voice, trying to connect with an anglophone community that is moving past its rights-based rhetoric and the caricature “angryphones” of the past.
If it was true that only Nixon could go to China, then maybe only a staunchly sovereigntist PQ minister such as Mr. Lisée can make real overtures to the anglophone community in Quebec. It remains to be seen how this will bear fruit; another high-profile speech alone is unlikely to do the trick. The real test will come as the government wades further into language reform and, eventually, its larger agenda on secularism, citizenship and identity issues.
Antonia Maioni is an associate professor of political science at McGill University.