When Saturday Night Live last month aired a sketch on the delicate dance between French and English in Quebec, its satirical depiction of the language reality in la belle province was roundly denounced in the francophone media as an attempt to squeeze cheap laughs out of old clichés.
What seemed to bother people most was not that one character in the sketch – the host of a fictitious Montreal morning show – described the city as “the best part of Canada and the worst part of France.” It was the idea that language in Quebec could be treated as a laughing matter.
The name of the fictitious Montreal morning show of the SNL sketch – Bonjour Hi! – struck a particular nerve. The expression had long been a greeting used by salesclerks in downtown Montreal shops until it ignited a political controversy in 2019. The National Assembly unanimously adopted a motion calling for the use of the word “bonjour” alone in Quebec shops.
The incident demonstrated the degree to which any act or expression, no matter how innocent, can generate serious blowback if it is perceived as a slight toward francophones or the French language. What is known as “the French fact” is to be respected. Or else.
Liberal MP Emmanuella Lambropoulos learned this the hard way last week after expressing skepticism toward the widely held impression that French is in decline in Quebec during a virtual hearing of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages.
“I have to see proof in order to believe it,” Ms. Lambropoulos told Official Languages Commissioner Raymond Théberge before asking him: “What exactly do you think contributes to this decline of French in Quebec?”
The 30-year-old MP, who represents a largely anglophone and allophone riding in northwest Montreal, fatefully made a gesture resembling air quotes when she used the word “decline.”
A 2019 report released by the Office québécois de la langue française indeed found that the proportion of Montreal merchants who greeted customers exclusively in French had declined to 74.6 per cent in 2018 from 84.2 per cent in 2010.
Meanwhile, a Journal de Montréal reporter who last week visited 30 downtown Montreal stores was greeted exclusively in English at 16 of them. At six stores, she was unable to receive service in French even after asking for it.
Facing an onslaught of criticism on social media, Ms. Lambropoulos apologized on Twitter for her “insensitive” questioning. But that was not enough to prevent a firestorm in Question Period. The Bloc Québécois naturally led the charge.
“The member for Saint-Laurent said out loud what Liberals think,” Bloc MP Mario Beaulieu quipped. “What’s more, she said it in English, which tells you how much importance she accords French.”
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole weighed in, in French, on Twitter: “The next time Justin Trudeau claims to defend the French language, remember the questions he asks his Quebec MPs to pose at the official languages committee.”
If this sounds to you like a tempest in a teapot, you must not live in Quebec.
Ms. Lambropoulos’s outburst had Liberals doing damage control all week. Her comments appeared to validate long-running criticisms that Liberals engage in double-talk on the language file. That MPs such as Ms. Lambropoulos are dispatched to champion the minority-language rights of the province’s anglophones, who vote for the party in Communist-bloc-like proportions, while cabinet ministers utter platitudes about the importance of protecting French.
The Liberal Party has a history of this, after all. Pierre Trudeau was a fierce opponent of Bill 101, the 1977 provincial law that made French the sole official language of Quebec and required the children of immigrants to attend French-language public schools. Mr. Trudeau’s government funded successful legal challenges of the law by Quebec anglophones that many francophones commentators continue to claim gutted some of its most critical provisions.
The current Trudeau government has been under pressure to extend Bill 101′s provisions guaranteeing francophones the right to work in their mother tongue to federally regulated companies, such as airlines and telecommunications providers. It has refused to so, but has recently softened its opposition in the face of relentless criticism in the province.
L’affaire Lambropoulous may end up forcing Mr. Trudeau’s hand. Seeking to defuse tensions over the incident, he even went so far as to praise Bill 101, an almost heretical gesture in the eyes of disciples of his father’s unbending political philosophy. “We recognize that, for Canada to be bilingual, Quebec must be first and foremost francophone. And that is why we support Bill 101 and what it does for Quebec,” Mr. Trudeau said in the House.
Ms. Lambropoulos, who has offered to resign from her seat on the official languages committee, may just have done the French cause in Quebec a huge favour.
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