On Sherbrooke Street West, across from the Roddick Gates, lies a symbol of Quebec that most passersby likely miss. Two electronic message boards are bolted to a streetlight. The screens, both customizable and computerized, are visible to all eastbound drivers. Both of them read “conduisez prudemment”. Absurdly, on what is likely the most English-speaking stretch of road in Montreal (and possibly the province), both electronic “drive carefully” signs are found only in French.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a fluke. The Quebec government’s obsession with French-only signage and government services, even in predominantly Anglophone areas, is manifested in many ways. Quebec’s provincial road signs are unilingual. Contrastingly, in Ontario — a province where only 11.3 percent of the population speaks French — road signs on provincial highways are bilingual. In Quebec, signs for provincial services are written exclusively in French, not bilingually as they are elsewhere in Canada. In Ontario, even in overwhelmingly anglophone Toronto, signs at DriveTest and ServiceOntario centres are written in both official languages. A call I made to the City of Montreal earlier in the year about my voting eligibility in municipal elections was received only in French. Luckily, I am bilingual, but I worry for the many unilingual anglophones in Montreal who may have trouble exercising their most basic democratic right. As an experiment, I made the same inquiry in French to the City of Toronto. I was connected to a French-speaking public servant in ten seconds flat. If predominantly English-speaking Toronto can get it done, predominantly bilingual Montreal should be able to as well.
Perhaps my experience with voting inquiries was an aberration. But lest we forget the ‘pasta’ debacle started by the Office québécois de la langue français (OQLF). Or the Adidas store manager who was publicly humiliated by the premier of the province for opening a new store with a speech predominantly in English. Or the Quebec government’s militant obsession with eliminating anglicisms from the popular lexicon. Or the numerous businesses chastised and fined by the OQLF for being too bilingual or not French enough. Or the fact that emergency road signs with vital safety information for drivers are too often written in French only.
It is not mutually exclusive to promote French language and culture while also recognizing the necessity of bilingual public services.
Don’t get me wrong: I love living in Montreal and think the world of it. There’s nowhere in Canada I’d rather be studying, in large part because this beautiful and refined city is a French-speaking one. Undoubtedly, there is a need to protect French culture and language on this predominantly English-speaking continent. I fiercely support publicly-funded French TV stations, radio channels, and cultural institutions. I support the existence of organizations like the OQLF which has created world-class resources for French language learners, supports vital Québécois cultural institutions, and promotes French fluency amongst Anglophone workers.
But here’s the thing: It is not mutually exclusive to promote French language and culture while also recognizing the necessity of bilingual public services. The accommodation of English-speakers does not mark a lethal threat to the status of French. As the President of France himself said to Premier Philippe Couillard, “defending the French language does not mean refusing to speak other languages.”
Allowing unilingual English-speakers to understand highway signs or determine voting eligibility in their native (and official) language does not undermine this province’s French nature.
Most McGill students who come to Quebec for undergraduate studies don’t seriously consider remaining in the province beyond graduation. Migration from Anglophone provinces to Quebec is embarrassingly low.
How do I know that? Because the phenomenon of French-only service isn’t widespread amongst the public. Quebecers are fond of ridiculing absurd scandals like the pasta debacle. Most Montrealers are bilingual. Weirdly enough, it is easier to receive service in English at an American Eagle than a government office. Most Quebecers get it. It’s the provincial government that hangs on to the notion that English public services aren’t deserving of a place in Quebec.
Ultimately, the status quo is untenable. Quebec’s reluctance to provide public services in English does it an enormous disservice. Most McGill students who come to Quebec for undergraduate studies don’t seriously consider remaining in the province beyond graduation. Migration from Anglophone provinces to Quebec is embarrassingly low. The fight to attract businesses and tourists from the rest of Canada and the United States is undeniably impacted by the lack of good government services in English. Young anglophones in Quebec overwhelmingly say they have considered leaving, specifically pointing to a lack of bilingual government services. It is simply absurd that almost every other province, including those demographically less bilingual than Quebec, makes a better effort than Quebec does to ensure bilingual government services.
Quebec would do well, and increase its own prosperity and influence, by ensuring that access to government is available in both official languages. A province that wants to attract world-class talent doesn’t just conduit prudemment. It also drives carefully.