Exclusive: Lisée on language and Montreal

Par Beryl Wajsman le 13 mars 2013


The man who is arguably Quebec's busiest Minister, and some would say the one holding the brief on the most contentious issues, took time out for a rare weekend interview this past Saturday. Jean-François Lisée, Minister for International Relations, External Trade, La Francophonie and Minister responsible for Montreal, forthrightly addressed concerns on the politics and policies of language of the Marois administration that have many Montrealers, regardless of cultural background, angry and concerned. To his credit, Minister Lisée set no preconditions on the questions that would be posed.


Beryl Wajsman: Minister, during the campaign you characterized the drop in the number of francophones on the island of Montreal as a problem that had to be addressed and corrected. Many observers believe that connecting language and geography raises the spectre of segregation and legitimizes, in the minds of some people, an aggressive response to anyone speaking English as we have seen in the past four months in several unfortunate incidents in the city. What is your answer to these concerns? 

Jean-François Lisée: Some of the interpretations of our government's concern about Montreal, and my comments, are wrong and I am glad to be able to clear this up once and for all. Nothing in our policies or my views should be construed in any way as opening the door to restricting or directing who may or may not live on the Island. Nor should they be construed as seeking to change normal daily interactions of Montrealers, some of which are, naturally, conducted in English. We're not suggesting counting heads or words. What we do want to guard against is a trend that, unchecked, could weaken the French character of Montreal. It is Quebec's largest city after all and the foundation of much that goes on here. But we want to do it by finding persuasive incentives not by enacting coercive restrictions.

BW: The exit of many people, francophone and anglophone, from the island that has caused a slight drop in the francophone population of Montreal is due to economic factors, mostly cheaper housing in Vaudreuil, Laval and the south shore. Recognizing that, what can or should your government - or any government for that matter - do about such a catalyst which is economic and not political?

J-FL: Clearly as you say, the reasons are economic. We do not mean, or intend, to engage in a blame game. We have to look for ways to create incentives, for all Montrealers particularly young families, to stay on the Island. This will naturally help restore the balance. 

BW: But it is not only the francophone community that is being affected by the departure of Montrealers from the island?

J-FL: Quite so. The incentives we seek are also important to maintain the security of the anglophone community as well. We need to arrive at a common consensus where every community - francophone, anglophone, and first nations - are secure and feel they have a stake in each other's viability.. 


BW: Meaning? 

J-FL: Meaning that each community needs a critical mass of population to maintain its continuity and institutions. As much as we want to assure the French character of Montreal to the degree reasonably possible, we also understand the importance of a vibrant anglophone community to the future of this city and to Quebec. It also needs a critical mass of population on the Island. That is why I am also very attentive to the decline in enrollment of anglophone school boards. I am working on policies of retaining families on the Island, also anglo families that would address this problem. 

BW: So if I understand you correctly, what you are seeking is a balance between the public square and the private sphere?

J-FL: That is correct. Look, families leaving the Island are one variable that accounts for the decline of the number of francophones. Another variable is the extent at which allophones eventually integrate either the French or English communities. In order to replicate the current equilibrium, we would need 15 percent of allophones to eventually switch to English as their primary language, and 85 percent to be French. But Statistics Canada tells us that the split is 50-50. So we have some ways to go. Of course, the state should have no say in the choices of individuals on private decisions of where to live or what language to use in private. We need to use, as I stated earlier, tools of persuasion and incentives to get to that equilibrium for the future. 

BW: We have also heard that your government is planning to use immigration policy as a means of maintaining francophone vitality. Can you shed some light on what is being considered?

J-FL: What our main goal is in immigration reform is that all immigrants succeed in Quebec. That is the primary objective. That all immigrants have the best chance at success.  That means having a set of skills that matches the needs of the labor market, that means arriving here with a basic knowledge of French and, as you know, candidates for immigration to Quebec get more points if they also have skills in English. In addition, we need to recognize that someone who not only knows French but actually lives in French - that can be in Paris or anywhere else in the world -  will have a better chance at integrating in Quebec society. Oddly, that had never been taken into account previously.

BW: So it is not all about economics nor even strictly about language? 

J-FL: Exactly. If we achieve a balance where immigrants coming to Quebec can feel at home faster, and have the skills that Quebec needs at any given time, it will not only make it easier for the immigrant to build a better life - economically and socially - but will also reduce our societal cost of integrating them into the economic, social and cultural fabric of Quebec. And that will benefit all citizens here morally as well as materially. Our willingness to adopt a Charter of secularism is also a way of saying to would-be newcomers that this is a nation that values gender equality and secular institutions, so there is no misunderstanding that the overwhelming majority of all Quebecers - be they English or French, Christians, Jews or Muslims - share as members of the family of western, pluralistically liberal nations. 

BW: I have to turn now to the question of language and small business. Part of your responsibility for Montreal must be economic viability of course. Your government has decided to impose Francisization requirements on businesses of 26-49 employees whereas the previous limit was 50 or more. With the OQLF itself reporting that almost 90 percent of small businesses in the downtown core serve customers in French first - and almost 80percent on the West Island doing the same - what was the necessity for that? 

J-FL: Look, we are not saying that, as a whole, businesses are not doing a good job of meeting the goal of French in the workplace. But since the great majority of new jobs are being created by small business, and a great number of allophones are in these jobs, it is important that the signal we give is that French is the common language in their workplace as well. 

BW: But Minister, industry reports have demonstrated that Quebec businesses spend some 19 full working days a year on compliance with government forms, rules and regulations. Won't these new language laws create yet another level of bureaucracy for business that will hurt their productivity? 

J-FL: We are conscious of that. That is why we intend these new rules to have the lowest possible impact on the ability of small business to function and achieve their first goal of profitability. That is precisely why we have laid out a reasonable period of adaptation - three years - and we will be supplying all the support, advice and assistance that any small business may need for adaptation. And that will go for everything from changing computer programs on up. We want to be partners with small business in this change not enforcers. As for the proportion of people working in French, though the OQLF numbers are positive on the top line, they have also shown a significant slippage from even five years ago. We just want to assure that there will be no further regressive impact on French as the common language of the broad workplace in Quebec. 

BW: The Premier and yourself have made a point of sending a message to big business that Quebec wants them investing here. That we're open for business. Now, many international corporations want to send some of their top executives here to oversee their operations. Many executives come from English jurisdictions - particular in the mining and resource sectors that your government wants to encourage - have children and want their children to attend English schools. Will your government give any consideration to exemptions to Bill 101 for executives of companies locating in Montreal which is the economic engine of Quebec's GDP? 

J-FL: If the executives are coming here for a limited time to start-up operations, Bill 101 already provides exemptions for them. So for example, if there is an executive who is here on a work visa of 5-7 years, he may send his children to English schools. But if they want to have permanent status, then they would not have the benefit of this exemption. They could of course always send their children to, private schools. But on a personal note, I would like to think that English speaking executives that move to Quebec for the long term might want their children to learn another language and culture since they will always have English at home. 

BW: Minister, I have to bring up one other issue that has come up this week. Minister of Health Réjean Hébert decided to pull Lachine General Hospital, out of its four year arrangement with the MUHC because he felt that arrangement would threaten Lachine's "francophone vocation." Minister Hébert's decision has been denounced by citizens groups, the Mayors of Lachine and Dorval and the physicians of the hospital itself. Should not the language of hospitals be healing not politics and should not the primary deciders be the medical staff itself? 

J-FL: With all respect, I would rather Minister Hébert speak for himself on this question. 

BW: Minister, thank you for taking the time for this on the weekend in what I know is an extremely busy schedule. 

J-FL: My pleasure and my best wishes for a healthy new year to all your readers



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