In a rare speech before France’s Academie Française — the body charged with protecting the French language in its home country — one of Quebec’s top ministers said that Canadian multiculturalism is a thorn in Quebec’s side.
The province’s premier later said he supports this view and that "we oppose multiculturalism."
What people are failing to see, argued Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette in a high-profile speech in Paris, is that Quebec’s controversial recent laws, whether language law Bill 96 or securalism law Bill 21, are themselves about protecting a fragile culture.
The "diversity of cultures is becoming just as threatened as the diversity of fauna and flora," he said in the Thursday speech — referring to Quebec’s French-speaking culture.
Jolin-Barrette is Quebec’s minister of justice and also its minister for the French language, making him deeply involved in both pieces of legislation.
In the lengthy speech, he went over the history of Quebec, from its founding as a French colony to the Quiet Revolution and beyond.
But one thing is a particular problem, he said: ensuring that newcomers to Quebec learn to live in French.
"One of our greatest challenges is to involve immigrants in our national project," he said.
"We are the neighbours of a great power, the United States, and we operate within a federation with an anglophone majority. The continental and global linguistic dynamic favors English in every way."
He heaped criticism on Canadian federal law that protects individual rights, calling this emphasis on the individual "nearly absolute," to the detriment of Quebec’s collective rights.
"Although our project is thwarted by Canadian multiculturalism, which finds an equivalent in what you call communitarianism and which combats the claims of Quebec to constitute itself as a distinct nation," Jolin-Barrette continued, "the French language must really become the language of use of all Quebecers."
Despite earlier laws forcing all children of immigrants to attend school in French, he said it hasn’t been enough, leading the current government to clamp down on English in post-secondary colleges by stemming their growth with enrollment caps.
"Upon graduating from high school… an alarming proportion of students, especially those whose first language is neither English nor French, rush into the anglophone network to pursue their studies," he said.
He also explicitly linked Bill 21 with the same struggle. Arguably the current government’s most controversial bill of their four years in power, it banned certain public servants, including teachers and police, from wearing religious symbols at work.
In practice, it affected female Muslim teachers most heavily, preventing school boards from hiring or promoting any hijab-wearing teachers.
Challenges to Bill 21 are still before the courts and are expected to end up at Canada’s Supreme Court.
"Law 96 on the French language does not come alone," said Jolin-Barrette.
"It was adopted after Law 21 on secularism, which I also had the honour of piloting, always with the same idea of strengthening the autonomy and personality of the State of Quebec."
When asked about Minister Jolin-Barrette’s comments in Paris, Premier François Legault said later Thursday that he is opposed to putting "all cultures on the same level" and stressed the importance of having a "culture of integration" above all else.
"So that’s why we oppose multiculturalism. We prefer to concentrate on what we call ‘inter-culturalism’ where you have one culture, the Quebec culture, where we try to integrate the newcomers, but we want to add to this culture," the premier said.
"I think new people coming to Quebec — they add to our culture. But it’s important to have a culture where we integrate, especially to our language."
Legault also argued this is in direct opposition to the Canadian model of multiculturalism.
"I see that Mr. Trudeau is pushing for multiculturalism, so he doesn’t want us to have a culture and a language where we integrate newcomers," the premier said.
In his speech, Jolin-Barrette addressed criticism that embracing English and bilingualism is a way of being open to the world, whether you see it as the language of Shakespeare or "Silicon Valley."
But that’s a misplaced idea, the minister argued.
"What is presented as an openness to the world too often masks acculturation, which comes with a significant loss of memory and identity," he said.
He said gone are the times when people can request to be served in English or French in Quebec, as in a "self-service business."
And Jolin-Barrette made a special point of attacking English Canadian media’s coverage of Bill 96.
"Recently, defamatory articles against Quebec have been published with too much complacency in American and English Canadian newspapers," he said.
"Lazy authors depict our fight from the most denigrating and insulting angle, trying to pass it off as a rearguard fight, a form of authoritarianism."
"Our fight for the French language is just, it is a universal fight, that of a nation which has peacefully resisted the will to power of the strongest."
For a large portion of the speech, Jolin-Barrette spoke of the time before the Quiet Revolution, when, he said, French was being lost in Quebec.
"A vulnerable proletariat was born, whose contaminated language quickly switched to Franglais," he said.
"The English-speaking oligarchy, heir to British power, imposed its language and its imagination….in the 1950s, French-Canadians lived in towns where commercial signage was often in English."
At another point, he called French the greatest of the Western languages, with the greatest literary influence.
In those earlier decades, "French Canada was one of the very few places in the world where the French language was a sign of social inferiority," he said.
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