Quebec is in the grip of a full-blown crisis over municipal corruption, its infrastructure is falling apart and its health system is nothing to boast about. So how does the Parti Québécois government of Pauline Marois mark its first three months in office? By reviving the old bogeyman of language, naturally.
Marois' language minister, Diane De Courcy, introduced a "new Bill 101" last week to combat the imaginary "problem" of an excess of English in public spaces. Too many shopkeepers, it turns out, are welcoming customers with a cheery "Bonjour -- Hi!" instead of using a strictly unilingual greeting. And too many employers are requiring fluency in both French and English when they post job openings. "It is disturbing to note that many French-speaking newcomers must take English courses if they hope to find work," De Courcy lamented.
Sadly, from the minister's point of view, the provincial government is so strapped, "it is not possible" to hire a corps of language inspectors to enforce the new, stricter rules on businesses with 25 employees or more (the old limit was 50). Instead, she wants all citizens to act as "sentinels of language" and snitch on store owners and small business people who don't follow language regulations.
The best that can be said about the PQ's new language law is it's not as bad as it could have been. When the party was campaigning for re-election in September, Marois shamelessly played the ethnic card by fanning baseless fears that French is losing ground. She proposed imposing language laws on tiny businesses with as few as 10 employees. She even wanted to ban students who graduate from French high schools from attending English junior colleges. The biggest critics of that idea were francophones, who know the value of acquiring fluent English in today's job market.
Now the PQ finds itself with just a minority mandate and has had to water down its linguistic ambitions. So Bill 101's complicated "francization" rules will apply to slightly larger businesses with at least 25 workers. And French high school grads won't be barred from English colleges. Instead, the colleges will have to give priority to English-speakers before offering any leftover spots to French applicants.
No one knows quite how that will work. Worse, the new law amends Quebec's Charter of Rights to give priority to "the importance of its common language" over other rights, such as protection against discrimination based on language. Don Macpherson, a columnist with the Gazette of Montreal, writes that it "continues a trend of tipping the balance in the charter for purely political reasons, toward 'values' popular with the majority and away from minority rights."
The Marois government's first 100 days have been a farcical parade of policy retreats, missteps and shameless backtracking. Its latest foray into needless language meddling shows how much worse it could have been if voters had trusted it with a majority.