- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2000

Other Canadian provinces will not like this, but Quebec may be a kind of template for the future. Having seen the future, one wonders will it work?

The governing Bloc Quebecois (BQ) still talks about independence and says 43 percent of the population believes in separating from the rest of Canada, but a new referendum is not in the cards for now. The last referendum in 1995 rocked all of Canada, when a cliffhanger vote kept the French-speaking province within the federation. At least until the BQ government gets up its courage to have another vote, the question may more aptly be how a linguistic and ethnic minority can take advantage of the opportunities and guard against the dangers that come from living in the age of globalization.

Like many other smaller-than-national units across the world, Quebec is thriving on international trade. Commerce with the United States which is regarded here with great good will, mainly, one suspects, because it is not Canada is particularly booming. The North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement was overwhelmingly popular in Quebec, far more than in the rest of Canada. It was the first Canadian province to join the U.S. Conference of State Governments, and trade with the United States today amounts to $65 billion a year. In Quebec, unemployment stands at 8 percent, which is higher than the Canadian average, but lower than it has been in many years. All of which means at least a greater degree of independence, if not independence itself.

Louise Beaudoin, formerly Quebec's highly controversial culture minister, is now its foreign minister as well as minister responsible for the French language. This is the only Canadian province to have a foreign policy of its own or attempt to have one, for the federal government in Ottawa is adamantly opposed to the idea. The paradox is that even as Quebec seeks more international connections beyond Canada's borders, as Ms. Beaudion says, globalization "makes it more difficult to stay French." She adds, "So much of our trade is with the United States, and we cannot expect Americans to learn French." Which is undoubtedly true. This is a problem since Quebec law mandates that French must be spoken in the workplace of companies with over 50 employees.

"This is the paradox of globalization," says Louis Balthazar, professor emeritus of political science at Laval University in Quebec. "The more you integrate, the more you defend your turf." Linguistic separatism becomes difficult when your borders are open. And he says, "the dollar link is inevitable, especially if the Euro turns out to be successful."

Does economic integration, therefore, also mean assimilation for Francophones here? Says Mr. Balthazar, "We don't want to become like Louisiana" a dread example of Francophones who lost their language. Only 2 percent of North America speaks French and the vast majority of them live in Quebec. The efforts to hold out against the English-speakers are stubborn and determined, and, according to the bitter complaints of the Anglophone 10 percent of the population, violate their civil rights.

Quebec's draconian language law 101, the Charter of the French Language, has made the province famous the world over for its linguistic edicts. Though internally it has succeeded in creating more French speakers, it still creates problems, image-wise. Today some of the worst excesses of the "language police" have been curbed in in Supreme Court decisions and laws. In 1988, for instance, the Supreme Court ruled that street signs can be in English as well as French, but that the English lettering should be only half the size of the French.

And the image of oppressive Francophone nationalism sticks and hurts Quebec's efforts to promote itself abroad. Americans, when asked in recent focus groups about Quebec, all as one cited the 1998 "60 Minutes" program with Morley Safer titled "War of Words." The program showed secessionists as paranoid buffoons, and quoted extensively Canadian author and government critic Mordecai Richler, who said that Quebec has effected "a kind of genteel ethnic cleansing." Mr. Richler charged that 250,000 English-speakers had left the province in the past 15 years because of linguistic frustrations.

Particularly memorable was the case of the English-speaking parrot, whose owner was fined by the language police because it could say "hello" but not "bon jour." The story is vehemently denied by Quebec officials. Mention of the "60 minutes" program here has much the same effect as mention of the movie "Midnight Express" has in Turkey.

"People think that we mistreat minorities and that we have the same arrogance towards English as the French in France," laments Guy Dumas, director of the Secretariat a la Politique Linguistique. Still, with an Office of the French Language, a Council of the French Language, and language inspectors to enforce the rules, it is not so strange that the Anglophones should feel besieged.

The real battle today, however, stands over the 30,000 immigrants who arrive in Quebec every year, the vast majority of whom want their children in English-speaking public schools. This they are not allowed, except in very special cases. They may, however, go to private schools if they can afford the tuition. Not many can.

"This has been a continuous battle for 400 years," says Mr. Dumas. "It takes a strong collective will to live our entire lives in French." Whether this battle is a losing one as Quebec and other national minorities seek to succeed in a world ruled via the Internet by the English language, will be for the historians of the 21st century to tell. This much can be said, though it will not get any easier.

E-mail: bering@washtimes.com

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