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The view of downtown Montreal from atop Mont Royal on Feb. 3, 2018.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/The New York Times News Service

Raise the price of something, and people will consume less of it. That’s the unassailable logic behind carbon taxes.

Since 2013, Quebec has had carbon pricing, to discourage carbon pollution. And as of next year, when it doubles tuition fees for out-of-province students at its three English universities, it will have a pricing system to discourage language pollution.

Quebec has valid fiscal reasons for this move. Across Canada, undergraduate education is heavily subsidized for Canadians, with those subsidies coming from the provinces. When a student from Alberta enrolls at McGill in Montreal, the difference between the tuition they pay and the considerably higher cost of their higher education is borne by Quebec taxpayers.

And Quebec is a net importer of students from other provinces. (Ontario and Nova Scotia are even bigger importers.) Six other provinces – led by Alberta – are net exporters.

According to an analysis by Higher Education Strategies, in 2018-19, Quebec universities enrolled 2,769 more students from the rest of Canada than there were Quebeckers at universities outside the province. Quebec City says that’s costing it more than $100-million a year.

The real figure is probably lower, given that out-of-province students already pay higher tuition than Quebeckers. Nevertheless, Quebec – a have-not province – appears to be spending to educate students from the rest of the country. The amounts of money involved aren’t large, but there’s a principle at stake. And given that interprovincial mobility is a good thing for the economy and national unity, Canadian governments should be eager to cook up an equitable deal to encourage such movement.

However, that’s not what the Coalition Avenir Québec government has called for. Nor is reducing overall provincial spending by less than one tenth of one per cent the reason it trumpeted this announcement.

Instead, the CAQ pitched this move as a bid to cut noxious emissions of English in Montreal.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Montreal wasn’t just la métropole of French Canada. It was also the metropolis of English Canada. The country’s two solitudes didn’t always meet, but at least they lived next door.

Montreal was the centre of Canada’s artistic life not just in French, but also in English, from Stephen Leacock, to Leonard Cohen to Hugh MacLennan (coiner of the term “two solitudes”).

The first internationally renowned Canadian university, and still the only one most people around the world can name, is an English-language institution in Montreal.

Canadian Pacific, the builder of the national dream, was headquartered in Montreal, as were many of the country’s other leading enterprises. Before there was Bay Street, there was Saint James Street.

That’s ancient history, of course. And much of what’s past deserved to be, such as when francophones couldn’t advance in business unless they did it in English.

But the pendulum has swung to the point where English Montreal, and English in Montreal, is insistently treated in all political discourse as an imposter, even though it’s been at the centre of the city’s life for more than 250 years.

Over the past half century, the stats show that Montreal has gone from Canada’s biggest city to its second largest. But in the imagination of the mostly English-speaking ROC, it now looms smaller than Calgary or Vancouver, existing on a distinct plane in an almost-separate Quebec. And for Quebeckers, it’s simply Quebec’s most important city, full stop – one where French is always posited as the sole language, with any signs of deviation from that ideal sparking regular political panics.

Since the late 1970s, immigrants to Quebec have had to send their children to French schools. Before, the waves of Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, Jews and others who arrived in the early- to mid-20th century mostly sent their kids to English schools, and adopted English as their language. Bill 101, the Charter of the French language, aimed to change that.

It did. According to the 2021 census, a mere one in 20 Quebeckers are unilingual anglophones. Fully 94 per cent of Quebeckers can hold a conversation in French – a higher figure than in the 1950s.

But learning French hasn’t meant not learning English – especially in Montreal. Six out of 10 Montrealers can speak both English and French, compared with fewer than one in 10 people in the rest of Canada.

More than a quarter of Greater Montreal – 1.2 million people – speaks English at home. But the vast majority of them aren’t only speaking English. They’re also speaking French, or another language, or all three.

The result is that on the streets of Montreal, lots of people are talking in multiple languages, often simultaneously – switching from fluent French, to fluent English, to fluent Arabic or Italian.

Immigrants have embraced French, as Bill 101 asked them to. However, they’ve also learned and are (gasp) speaking English. That’s created wonderful paradoxes, like the fact that Quebec’s two funniest stand-up comedians in French, Sugar Sammy and Mike Ward, are anglos.

Montreal’s real and growing bilingualism and trilingualism is a major economic asset, and does not have to be a threat to the French fact. But no politician would be foolish enough to ever say such a thing.

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