Thursday, 10 April 2014

Anglicisation in Montreal - An Issue for Paranoid Non-Residents

The election autopsy of the massive heart attack the Parti Quebecois suffered on Monday has been duly performed by national and provincial media outlets in Quebec, Canada, and I will refer the reader to these rather than repeat all the reasons the most incoherent, bizarre, ridiculous campaign a modern North American incumbent government has ever run caused it to implode. This obviously gave someone like me great pleasure to witness, and you only need to read my last entry to find out why. But just before...just before the door hits the PQ's arse on its way out, I would like to remind it of one glaring, gaping hole in, if I may call it that, for the future of the province. One that it has not been taken to task on by said media outlets. It has to do with the city I live in, Montreal.

The PQ and its sympathizers and sycophants across Quebec media often issue stern warnings of the “problem” in Montreal. That there is an “anglicisation” of the island, that job postings in North America's twentieth-largest city and the only French-speaking one of these often require bilingualism, that some retail and shop employees in the downtown have taken to an annoying greeting habit of saying “Bonjour-Hi” and that drastic measures must be taken to halt these tendencies at all costs. Never mind the fact that the Liberal party of Dr. Philippe Couillard, who outgoing Premier Pauline Marois accused of “refusing to defend our language and culture”, took 21 out of 28 seats on the island and the several of the ones on the Western half by upwards of 75-80% of the vote – the actual residents of this island cannot assess the hazards of the situation and need the munificent PQ to do it for them.

But even if I do find the “Bonjour-Hi” thing a little annoying personally, it's not something that is going to change my day one way or another. I do, however, take offense to a government being paid with our tax dollars using its resources and energy to try and regulate or legislate around this. Defeated Montreal-area PQ cabinet minister Diane De Courcy intended to do just that when she referred to this situation as being “inacceptable” and that it was necessary to take measures. No need to mention facts like that Montreal has lost hundreds of thousands of its native English speakers to other North American cities over the years, that the drop in French speaking households is not due to French people giving up speaking French but rather their decamping to the surrounding suburbs, many of whose populations have doubled, tripled, quadrupled and are almost entirely French speaking, and that most abstract yet most damning truth – a language that has to be forced upon and legislated into a milieu has by that point equal or lesser chances of surviving than if you just left it alone and didn't make people associate it with restrictions and bureaucrats. In other words, if people in government offices and tax dollars are keeping a language alive, (“Hello, Gaelic!”) it's already too late.

The PQ supporters and the people who leave comments on the online version of Le Devoir are mistaken in their belief that downtown Montreal represents some kind of English beachhead (cancer) that will spread to the entire province. I have been in many parts of Quebec and nothing could be further from the truth. In any case it is futile to try and convince this crowd; they will label me as the angry resident English speaker and just accuse me of playing to type, and I will leave that role to the Gazette who so reliably fulfills it. I will instead attempt frame this in a broader, more global context to give the Bonjour-Hi in downtown Montreal English fearers some perspective.

Montreal's weaknesses are numerous and on display for all its residents to see, but it's strengths – educated workforce, cosmopolitan destination, diverse human capital, low cost of living - lead to achievements that the PQ is only too anxious to appropriate as its own. Witness Mme Marois rushing with her local MNAs (all high profile cabinet ministers) to hand out subsidies and tax breaks so they can do photo-op announcements with local high-tech knowledge industry players like Ubisoft, or boast about attracting a large investment for a plant and hiring commitment in high-end manufacturing from a massive multinational like Siemens. This is because she prioritizes, in her words, “secteurs de pointe”, or cutting edge industries: those high-value, high-paying jobs that every politician wants to attract for obvious reasons. High-profile Montreal minister Jean-Francois Lisee, meanwhile, gushed effusively on his blog about traveling in India and China and seeing the great work “nos entrepreneurs” as in, Quebec businesspeople, were doing over there. It was nice of him to point that out, but I don't even want to know what it cost the taxpayer for him to be able to do that.

The point is that it is now clear that PQ was talking out of both sides of its mouth: dumping on English, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs in the rural areas to score votes while presenting itself as an innovative, leading-edge, clean-tech superstar in Montreal. Obviously it was a huge miscalculation in that the people the latter appeals to would be too disgusted by the former to swallow it. And even several areas “en region” (Quebec parlance for “outside Montreal”) surprised the media, which unfairly paints it as being a uniformly white, insular, french, racist bloc, by kicking out PQ incumbents, showing that tolerance for stupidity is at comfortably low levels all across this beautiful province. More importantly, it shows a clear mismatch between “values” the PQ espouses on behalf of the population and one of its ambitions.

The ambition is for Montreal to be the North American equivalent of Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm. These are medium-sized cities with non-English speaking majorities, value-added sectors, and an undeniable cool factor, which is so prevelant in residents that they are kind of intimidating, at least to go live in. Montreal would love to be considered in the same class as these cities; if it is, the PQ no doubt considers itself the chief architect of that fact. The parallels with Berlin in particular – long periods of decline, economic stratification between east and west, low rents that persist up until today, vibrant arts sector (although Berlin, the epicentre of Europe and ground zero of World War II and the third biggest economy in the world's split, is obviously much more hardcore and heavyweight in all of these respects) – are striking. Yet do German politicians fret about the creative types flocking to Berlin from all over the worlds' inability to speak German? Do they dream up schemes to force non-German speaking individuals to run their two-employee tech startup in German, then make them apply for an exception through a byzantine bureaucracy to be able to put up a job posting requiring English fluency? How about a cafe owner being allowed to fire his minimum-wage, immigrant employee for not taking a turban or hijab off?

Germany was the birthplace of nazism, and no doubt continues to count adherents to extreme-right wing fascist ideology among its population today. Such movements exist as well in the other cities I mentioned, Stockholm and Amsterdam, as well as all over Europe; in Greece and Hungary – poorer, less developed economies - they are gaining dangerous amounts of traction. Yet in none of these places are these groups, which would support such proposals as I described above, anywhere close to the levers of power. Here in Quebec, these were ideas put forth by various members of the PQ government that was in power up until three days ago. This is, I suspect, one of the factors precisely preventing the ambition of Quebec's economic capital, Montreal, becoming a global, innovative, creative, plus-value city, from being realized.

I do not want to give the impression that PQ has been a neo-nazi party from the get-go or anything. But the party of national legends like Rene Levesque and Lucien Bouchard – erudite, logical, intellectually forceful men – has fallen hard and has fallen far to be recruiting crackpot candidates who write about kosher and halal food as secret tax conspiracies to line the pockets of rabbis and imams, or trots out 89 year old former celebrities to talk about fantasies of muslim men and McGill students forming cabals to take over her apartment building's swimming pool. In the newspapers, pequistes are defending themselves saying they have been unjustly compared to putin, stalin, hitler, et al. I will grant them that those comparisons are unfair, if anybody indeed made them. They are clearly, however, at least as loopy as some of the talking heads on Fox News.

If pequistes were serious about wanting a country that would include this jewel of an economic capital, maybe they can make a case based on economics, governance, or efficiencies. If they think they will continue to dream about it on the pillars of language, culture and identity, their decline will only be further cemented. And no place in Quebec is more illustrative of this gap than that dynamic, edgy, modern city the PQ wish they swept and instead got almost shut out of, Montreal.