Skip to main content

Instead of memorizing Canadiens statistics like 12-year-old Montrealers of times past, Jean-Philippe Warren’s son burrows into highly specific digital rabbit holes.

Recaps of the Napoleonic Wars geared to the adolescent market? YouTube has that covered. Contemporary songs inspired by 1930s blues music, but with jokey lyrics? Two clicks away on Spotify.

More power to a curious and interesting kid. There’s just one problem, says Mr. Warren, a sociology professor at Concordia University: It’s all in English.

The digital era has been a golden age for the quirky and particular. Except when it comes to language. Linguistically, the internet is a zone of deadening homogeneity. By some estimates, English makes up more than 60 per cent of the internet’s content.

Perhaps no other society is more preoccupied by this fact than Quebec. The province’s francophones have spent 250 years as a tiny French-speaking island surrounded by a sea of anglophones, losing demographic ground all the while. Now, that sea has opened onto a virtual ocean, as American economic might and the first-mover advantage of Silicon Valley have turned English into a global lingua franca.

That means young Quebeckers are spending less of their time consuming French-language media, chipping away at the cohesion of the province’s common culture.

“I think it’s undeniable that this phenomenon weakens the place of French in Quebec,” said Prof. Warren. “People are sucked towards universes that are anglophone.”

There is no silver bullet available in Quebec’s eternal battle to preserve itself as a francophone society. But one weapon the province’s intelligentsia hopes to use is Bill C-11.

The federal legislation currently making its way through the Senate would require big digital platforms like Netflix and Spotify to make Canadian productions easier to access on their sites.

The bill has been controversial in the rest of Canada, where critics have raised concerns about C-11′s implications for free speech, because the law would submit online media to regulation by bureaucrats at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

Movie studios warn Bill C-11 could skew platforms’ film and TV menus

In Quebec, there has been no controversy. Support for the bill is “practically unanimous,” said Monique Simard, a long-time power player in the province’s cultural industries, including a stint as head of the National Film Board’s French service. She recently sat on a federal panel of experts studying the future of broadcasting and telecommunications legislation in Canada.

The goal isn’t to close Quebeckers off from the world, she says – she’s a francophone born in Montreal and that didn’t stop her from listening to The Beatles. But Quebec’s cultural landscape has changed radically in the past couple of decades, to the detriment of local artists.

The province still enjoys a powerful zeitgeist complete with an independent star system and TV shows that routinely reach a quarter of francophone viewers or more. An episode of the French-language cop drama District 31, which has been airing for six seasons, was watched by 1,740,000 people in April – nearly the same audience share as the 2022 Super Bowl managed in the U.S.

These water-cooler staples, however, are increasingly older people’s fare. Just like in the rest of Canada, francophone Quebec youth watch far less traditional TV than their elders. The 25-34 age bracket consumed just 13 hours of the stuff weekly last year, according to an analysis by Laval University’s Centre d’études sur les médias, compared with a remarkable diet of 47 hours per week for seniors.

Younger francophones live on smaller screens. The existence of a homegrown social-media ecosystem doesn’t change the fact that a preponderance of digital media is in English.

Even non-anglophones produce their educational clips about Austerlitz and their Robert Johnson spoofs in the language of Hollywood, because it is the planet’s semi-official second language, with far more non-native speakers than any rival. While just about 400 million people have English as their mother tongue, 1.5 billion people can speak it, according to The Rise of English: Global Politics and the Power of Language, by law professor Rosemary Salomone. That’s a lot of potential clicks.

Francophone teens watching YouTube videos in English won’t make them forget how to speak French. But it might pull them away from the unifying cultural references that help make Quebec a distinct society.

A much-discussed segment by the comedian Guy Nantel this fall showed him asking basic questions about Quebec to clueless students at Montreal’s anglophone Dawson College. But just as striking was how few of the francophone students recognized touchstone figures like the entertainer Yvon Deschamps or former premier René Lévesque.

“A language is about more than just being able to chat around the house,” said Prof. Warren. “You should also be able to express yourself about a whole range of cultural and political subjects.”

It’s against this backdrop that C-11 has won wide support in Quebec, where the bill is more popular than in any other region. Just 19 per cent of Quebeckers oppose the idea of greater government regulation of the internet, according to a spring Nanos survey, compared with 50 per cent on the Prairies. (The poll included responses from 1,005 Canadians by phone and online, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)

No one believes the law would be a cure-all. Even with more visibility for French-language Canadian productions on Netflix, their output would continue to be drowned in the internet’s anglo ocean.

But the bill’s limits are no reason to let it die – as was allowed to happen with the legislation’s predecessor, Bill C-10 – said Benoît Pelletier, a former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister and current law professor at the University of Ottawa.

“It’s true that this law isn’t perfect but there is legislative momentum and that momentum should be seized,” he said.

If Mr. Pelletier gets his wish, future Quebec teens may at last be able to scratch their itch for summaries of Napoleon’s downfall in the language of his country.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe