Features | Quelle place pour le français à McGill

A plea for reconciliation of the two solitudes

The low proportion of francophones at McGill is not a new problem. Some see this as a normal state of affairs, due to our school’s history. Not us. Given McGill’s location in this holdout francophone province in North America, it seems unthinkable to us that such little effort has been made to support and expand bilingualism in a concrete way at the University. The current situation must change. Never fear: we’re not just going to complain. Possible solutions are close at hand.

An anglophone emblem of French Quebec
The history of McGill University is intrinsically linked to Montreal’s English-speaking community. Having come to trade fur following the conquest of this province, many British and United Empire Loyalists took the opportunity to prosper here. One of these merchants, James McGill, had an exceptional vision: he bequeathed his fortune for the creation of a university.

McGill’s history is one of intellectual flourishing, leading to many discoveries and major contributions at the academic level. These accomplishments have played a critical role in the development of the school’s reputation for excellence, which still stands today.

McGill is one of the most prestigious academic establishments in North America, and probably the best-known Quebec institution worldwide. A symbol of Quebec to the rest of the world, McGill remains an anglophone institution. With the exception of its Faculty of Law and the Département de langue et littérature françaises, the greatest university in Quebec does not give its students the possibility of studying in French.

Why is this option unavailable? After all, French is the official language of Quebec. Despite this fact, 17.5 per cent of McGill’s students speak French as their mother tongue, a statistic that has steadily decreased over the past 10 years. Undoubtedly, we may presume that a greater emphasis on the French language would bring McGill and Quebec’s francophones closer together. However, the question remains: how can this be done without hindering those countless elements that are essential to McGill’s prestigious reputation?
Performance anxiety
Bilingualism within the university milieu is not an entirely unknown phenomenon. The most famous bilingual institution, the University of Ottawa, calls itself the Canadian University. By provincial law, University of Ottawa has a mandate to “favour the development of bilingualism and biculturalism” and to “preserve and to develop French culture in Ontario.” All students can complete their program in the language of their choice, and the institution offers all communications and services in both languages. The harmonious coexistence of the languages is encouraged through French immersion programs offered at the undergraduate level and through linguistic requirements at the graduate level. A permanent commission on francophone affairs and official languages, elected by the University’s senate members, ensures that the University’s mission of bilingualism is consistently respected. Despite progressive decreases in francophone registration, Ottawa continues to maintain equality by allowing students from both linguistic communities to feel at home.

Some might argue that the University of Ottawa model is an ideal that can’t be applied to McGill or Quebec. It is important to remember, however, that McGill already has its own bilingual gem at the foot of Mount Royal: its very own Faculty of Law. The faculty has a policy of passive bilingualism: each student must comprehend French if English is their mother tongue and vice versa. In first year, all classes are offered in both languages and students can choose which language to take their courses in. Thereafter, some classes continue to be taught in both languages, but electives are offered exclusively in one or the other. This policy allows students to ask questions and hand in written work in English or in French, regardless of the class’s language of interaction. The teacher will respond in the language that the class is taught in, and exam questions will be formulated in this language as well. Whoever said that both languages were destined to speak without understanding one another?
So how did this policy impact the student body? We can tell you right away that grades weren’t affected at all. Every year in Maclean’s rankings, the distinction of Canada’s best law school alternates between McGill’s law faculty and its University of Toronto counterpart, which is obviously exclusively anglophone. But the ranking isn’t everything. Many students are delighted by the opportunity to take a course or two in their second language, while remaining able to write exams and ask questions in their first language. This allows for a progressive immersion of which the student is in charge. The freedom to choose is absolute: a student can successfully complete his degree without a single course taught in French. This truly is the best of both worlds.

Bringing the two solitudes together
A bilingual university becomes the junction of two linguistic communities that otherwise would remain isolated. Montreal’s four universities illustrate this division: each linguistic group has two schools. Shouldn’t there be a bilingual university in this city? In our view, the first Quebec university to become bilingual would have a significant advantage over the others. It would be where Quebec’s two communities (three, if you include allophones, or those who speak neither English nor French as their mother tongue) would come together as one. This mix of cultures, while always remembering to recognize freedom of choice, would foster a unique situation for McGill. A larger place for the French language at McGill would allow the University to become an academic centre for Quebec as a whole.

We must increase the presence of francophones at McGill. These examples of English and French in unison lead us to believe that we can make our universities a meeting point for two linguistic communities that live in parallel societies. Increasing the number of francophone courses would be the first sign to the francophone community that they truly are welcome at McGill. If the majority of first-year courses, in all programs, could be offered in French as well as in English, this would ease the transition for francophone students from French-language CEGEPs to anglophone McGill. Second, if one-third of professors understood French, and this were duly noted on their course calendar, francophone students could opt-in as they choose. They would be allowed to ask questions in their mother tongue, again welcoming students too intimidated to burst out of their francophone bubble at McGill. In the long run, it would be fascinating to see McGill become known as the meeting point for all of Quebec’s distinct linguistic communities.

Julien Adant is a member of the Commission on Francophone Affairs and Alexandre Forest is a Commissioner of Francophone Affairs. Write them at caf@ssmu.mcgill.ca in the language of your choice.


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