Jeffery Vacante is an assistant professor of history at the University of Western Ontario. He is the author of National Manhood and the Creation of Modern Quebec.
The federal government says it has a solution for the decline of French in Canada. On Monday, Bill C-13, an act to amend the Official Languages Act, passed the House of Commons with support from all parties, and the legislation is now headed to the Senate. This followed an April announcement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, along with Minister of Official Languages Ginette Petitpas Taylor, on the Action Plan for Official Languages, a five-year funding program intended to strengthen French-speaking communities across Canada. The government hailed the plan as a historic financial commitment for the protection of the French language in Canada.
The measures have been embraced by the Quebec government, as well as by French-language minority groups across the country. However, before they celebrate, French-language groups outside Quebec should stop to ponder the long-term consequences of these measures.
The English-speaking community in Quebec has already raised concerns about the ways the bill would limit access to English services in the province. A major point of contention has been the explicit references in the bill to Quebec’s Charter of the French Language, which was recently amended – with the pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause – by Bill 96. The fact that Bill C-13 effectively endorses the use of the notwithstanding clause, and the fact that it defers to the Charter of the French Language in Quebec – which does not guarantee access to services in English – means that the English-speaking community in Quebec has every reason to be concerned.
There has been less talk of the harm that Bill C-13 would have on French-speaking communities outside Quebec. But these communities should be concerned, because with this newly amended Official Languages Act, the federal government is effectively walking away from the idea that Canada is a bilingual country and embracing the idea that it is an English-speaking country that has a French-speaking region in Quebec and a smattering of French-speaking communities outside that province. By weakening the legal protections for bilingualism across the country – and embracing a regional and asymmetric approach to bilingualism – the new Official Languages Act will in effect make linguistic minorities in Canada subject to the whims of whatever government happens to be in power.
Moreover, if the federal government will no longer defend the principle of equality, then there will be little reason for provincial governments to do so either. What this will mean is that a provincial government in an English-speaking province – let’s say Ontario – could limit the rights of its francophone minorities to access services in their own language on the grounds that Quebec – and even the federal government – does little to protect access to English-language services there. Once governments outside Quebec come to embrace this regional approach to bilingualism, it will not be long before they begin to wonder why they are providing French-language services at all.
An illustration of how the language issue will play out in a Canada reshaped by Bill C-13 could be found in Pierre Poilievre’s recent promise to eliminate funding for the CBC – by which he meant funding for the English-language CBC. Mr. Poilievre was quick to clarify that he had never intended to suggest that he would cut funding to the French-language service Radio-Canada, which he claimed served an important role for francophones. But in making this distinction, Mr. Poilievre has essentially committed to diverting public money extracted from one part of the country – let’s say Alberta – to fund the cultural production of another part of the country – let’s say Quebec.
The federal government will find itself navigating similar traps as a result of Bill C-13. Since it will no longer approach English- and French-speaking citizens on equal terms, the government will determine its relationship with – and support for – linguistic groups according to the perceived threats that these groups face.
And so, if a minority French-speaking community in Canada is deemed to be threatened, it can expect more federal support. On the other hand, if the majority French-speaking community in Quebec is itself deemed to be threatened by virtue of the fact that it constitutes a minority in Canada, it can expect more federal support, as well.
Any protests by English-speaking Quebeckers, on the other hand, will be understood through the lens of the precariousness of the French language in Canada and thus be ignored.
And any gains that French-speaking communities outside Quebec might achieve as a result of Bill C-13 will be precarious because they will have been achieved under an amended Official Languages Act that will produce a Quebec that is more French and a rest of Canada that is more English.
When that day arrives – and when the funding announced in the Action Plan dries up – perhaps all those francophone groups outside Quebec that have embraced Bill C-13 will have second thoughts about the enthusiasm they had shown for this bill.
After all, those who sacrifice the rights of a minority group in one part of the country in order to advance their own rights in another part of the country will one day wake up to find that their own rights are just as expendable.