The human face of Bill 101 (National Post, April 04, 2005)

Last week, 28 years after the passage of Quebec's draconian language law, Bill 101, the Supreme Court of Canada definitively ended the hopes of francophone Quebec families seeking to educate their children in English. The ruling upheld the essence of the language charter's arbitrary education provisions, which oblige francophone children attending public school to be educated in French.

The ruling doesn't affect those cosmopolitan francophones who can afford to send their children to private schools -- that is to say, those children most likely to end up as Supreme Court justices.

Interestingly, I've never met a francophone with a background of means who doesn't speak excellent English. English for francophones -- and French for Quebec anglophones -- is what sociologues call social capital: It creates opportunities for networking and career advancement. Francophones need English to succeed in virtually all professional, academic and entrepreneurial ventures of scope and ambition in today's global economy. The rich get richer for a good reason, and now, thanks to the Supreme Court, the linguistically poor and their children in Quebec won't have the chance to amass the social capital they need to advance themselves.

The iniquity of the language situation was brought home to me in a very personal way about a decade ago. My husband and I had bought land in the Laurentians and sought a contractor with experience in building habitant-style pre-fabs. Yves (not his real name) was recommended to us. There was only one tiny problem: His English was so rudimentary, it was clear our communications would have to be entirely in French.

I function pretty well in French, so I saw it as an adventure. Yves built us a wonderful house, on time and on budget, with workmanship of the highest order. But my language "adventure" often involved slogging through communication mud, with forced halts over words like "joists," "mouldings" and "dormers," not the stuff of my usual quotidian exchanges. When linguistic impasses arose, Yves felt guilty, I felt stupid and we spent a good deal of time consoling one another over a dictionary instead of house-building.

Yves poured out his frustration at having been denied the right to learn English properly. The minimal English instruction he'd received in the French public school system was virtually useless. As a small contractor, he feels he is missing out on opportunities in the lucrative English market.

Yves also told me he'd sworn that his little girl, five years old, wouldn't grow up with the same career handicap. He begged the principal of a nearby English school to admit her. Of course, she was forbidden to by law -- Bill 101. Yves remembers kicking the door hard on his way out as a symbolic gesture of his anger.

The irony wasn't lost on me. Yves' daughter, a francophone Bill 101 was supposed to "protect," has one choice: French public school. My own anglophone daughter had four: an English language system with good French instruction; French immersion schools; the French public school system; or private school. Since we could afford it, we sent our children to private English schools, where French is given such high priority that attending a post-secondary French school posed no problems for her. My daughter amassed social capital that produced a panoply of career options denied to Yves' daughter.

For millennia, countless cultures have spoken one language amongst themselves while freely learning another -- or others -- for use in the wider world. Only Quebec purposely disadvantages citizens of the majority culture, with a zero-sum language policy that infantilizes its residents. Bill 101 endorses the fiction that although people elsewhere are competent to learn the international lingua franca of English without neglecting their own language, Quebec francophones are such simpletons that learning English properly will cause them to discard their mother tongue.

In the name of cultural purity, Bill 101 perpetuates an invidious two-tier social marketplace in which the rich and worldly batten on the nutrients from a smorgasbord of imported delicacies, while a permanent underclass of language drones must subsist on local produce.

Everyone knows that a socially just ruling by the SCC would have provoked an intolerable backlash from Quebec, but let's at least admit that this politically correct decision runs counter to our values of fair play and individual rights. Let's admit that there is no justice in it for Yves' daughter, or for any other ordinary francophone Quebecer who only asks to give his children the advantages Quebec anglophones, francophone Quebecers of means and all other Canadian children take for granted.

© National Post 2005