I heard it often last summer: a day-time chorus of adult voices reciting elementary phrases in French, from the open windows of the school opposite my Montreal apartment. That was the sound of crash courses mandated by the province to make new immigrants functional in French.
"Francisation" is a cornerstone of immigration policy in Quebec, where more than one-third of those arriving from other lands do not speak French. But the policy's success may be more nebulous than anyone imagined, according to a recent report that read like the script for every francophone Quebecker's immigration nightmare.
In her latest report to the National Assembly, Auditor-General Guylaine Leclerc revealed that fewer than one in 10 of the adult students who enroll in the government's main francisation program become proficient enough to work or do postsecondary studies in French. Only 28.3 per cent of eligible students even applied for the course in 2013, down from 36.9 per cent three years earlier.
Ms. Leclerc outlined in blistering detail how the Ministry of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusion (MIDI) watched a politically sensitive program burn to the ground without ever investigating the cause of the fire. MIDI had no idea why students did not register, left early or failed to learn. It had done no formal evaluation of its francisation programs in over a decade. An internal audit commissioned in 2012 was still not finished when Ms. Leclerc came calling.
All this was headline news, as any story about bumbling, wasteful bureaucracy would be (MIDI's language-support budget for 2016 was $74.5-million). While a similar story in Ontario or B.C. might focus on the money, the big concern in Quebec was the immigrants imagined to be at large with no French, or – even worse – learning English as their first official language.
More than 90 per cent of new immigrants to the province settle in Montreal, which means that the direct impact of MIDI's failure is geographically limited. Language anxiety is so ingrained in francophone Quebec, however, that weakness anywhere is felt as a threat to all. In August, Statistics Canada mistakenly announced a small surge in English in a few places, prompting apocalyptic forecasts that French was doomed in Quebec (Statscan later erased the phantom blip, which was the result of a computer error).
Like that fake news, but without misreporting anything, Ms. Leclerc's report startled people into believing things are worse than they are. Other provincial agencies run or finance French classes for immigrants, and some, such as l'Emploi Québec, offer a heftier subsidy to full-time students than MIDI does. Some departments may not keep prospective students waiting 85 days to start, which is MIDI's leisurely "service target." Immigrants may also take private courses, such as the advanced Concordia University evening class I attended last year, in which I was almost the only student born in Canada. Nobody knows how immigrants were distributed among all the classes available, because there's no central registry.
In any case: Are immigrants who may or may not be taking courses having a real effect on French usage in Quebec? The corrected figures from Statistics Canada's August report showed that French remained the first official language spoken among 83.7 per cent of the population, roughly the same proportion as five years earlier. A recent study by the provincial Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) found "little change" in the workplace use of French.
The OQLF was strangely complacent, however, about signs of increasing bilingualism, which for francophones can be at least as troubling as French-less immigrants. OQLF found that 89 per cent of Quebeckers worked "principally" in French, but that figure includes some who use the language only half the time. Statscan's measure of "predominant" usage excluded language-parity situations, and found that a shrinking proportion – fewer than 80 per cent – of Quebeckers work predominantly in French. More workers were functioning more or less equally in both official languages.
In other parts of Canada, bilingualism is seen as a concession to the French fact. For many in Quebec, it's a path to final victory for North America's dominant language. An economic immigrant able to learn both official languages may see every advantage in drifting to English as the default – along with francophone youth submerged in a largely anglophone internet. That is the collective nightmare, given new life by MIDI's failure.
"Bilingualism" may be the wrong word, at least when it comes to communicating Quebec's fear to the rest of the country. Maxime Laporte, president of the pro-independence group Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal, suggests we use a different term: "diglossia," meaning a situation in which two languages or dialects are used in a single territory, but with different levels of prestige. The problem in Quebec, Mr. Laporte writes in a recent essay, is that English is still the glamorous "high" tongue, "the language of business, success and the economic elite; the truly useful language."
As long as that power imbalance persists between the languages, francophones in Quebec will flinch at every rumour of even a small erosion in French usage.