Have you heard of Black Thursday? Not the Wall Street crash of 1929, but a more recent dark day in Canadian history. If you’re stumped, get in line.
On Nov. 15, 2018, when Doug Ford’s government scrapped a promised new French-language university and got rid of Ontario’s French language services watchdog, the news barely registered in most of the country. But for 600,000 Franco-Ontarians, it was “Jeudi noir.” A historic linguistic minority with a history of being slighted responded by petitioning and protesting. They made enough of a nuisance that the Ford government ultimately reversed most of the cuts.
For francophones outside Quebec, it was one more battle against official neglect, contempt, or absence of mind.
The Quebec government of Premier François Legault has been criticized, and with good reason, for invoking the notwithstanding clause to curtail the rights of the province’s English-speakers in his flagship language reform, Bill 96. It’s no excuse – as Mr. Legault sometimes falsely suggests – but francophones outside of Quebec often face an even less hospitable reality. Without succumbing to issue-dodging whataboutism, or pretending that two minority communities wronged somehow makes it all right, it’s worth reflecting on the perennial battle for survival waged mostly under the radar in Shediac and Sudbury and St. Boniface.
Too often, a basic level of respect eludes French-speaking communities in the Rest of Canada. Ask Acadians in New Brunswick about Brenda Murphy, their unilingual anglophone Lieutenant-Governor. Her 2019 appointment, made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, violated the language guarantees of the Charter of Rights, according to a recent ruling by a judge on the province’s Court of Queen’s Bench.
Ottawa is appealing the decision, but whatever the result, the choice of a viceregal representative who does not speak French, in Canada’s only officially bilingual province, represents a sad failure of decency, and political common sense. If a federal government led by a Trudeau – whose father was the champion of linguistic minorities – and with a LeBlanc as minister of intergovernmental affairs – whose father was the first Acadian Gov.-General – could not see that, it’s a very bad sign.
Some will ask: Why should English Canadians care? Quebec will protect French in Quebec; we can wash our hands of francophones outside Quebec. But that’s not how the country is supposed to work. And in any case, the province’s vexed relationship with its linguistic minority makes it an unreliable ally for francophones beyond its borders.
In the era of that earlier Trudeau, English Canada re-examined its history, and that of long-sidelined francophones. There were meaningful attempts at what would today be called reconciliation; the federal government started also operating in the language of one-quarter of the country, and language-education rights were entrenched in the Constitution. But in an increasingly multicultural and multiracial Rest of Canada, there is a tendency to see French as just another tile in the mosaic. That misreads both Canada’s history and its ongoing linguistic duality.
The federal government is still the surest bet for French-speakers west of Gatineau and from Edmundston east. And those francophones need a friend. The share of the population outside Quebec with French as its mother tongue has declined from 8 per cent in the 1940s to less than 4 per cent today. In Ontario, 44 per cent of francophones no longer use French at home, according to Statistics Canada. The pattern is worse in the West.
The Trudeau Liberals have tried to lend a hand by introducing Bill C-13, which would amend the Official Languages Act by imposing new requirements for French in the workplace for certain federally regulated businesses in so-called “regions with a strong francophone presence.”
The longer-term solution may lie with immigration. But last year, federal Commissioner of Official Languages Raymond Théberge noted that for the feds to meet their targets for francophone immigration outside of Quebec, they would have had to admit more than 75,000 extra French-speaking permanent residents between 2008 and 2020.
The bottom line is that much rides on Canadians caring. So if you care about Bill 96 and the situation of anglophones in Quebec, you should also care about francophones in the rest of the country enduring Black Thursdays, unilingual lieutenant-governors, and other, quieter setbacks.
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