| Whose culture is it?

Taking on the myth that Quebec’s culture belongs to a select few

Last week I wrote about a popular strategy that politicians employ to scare up votes: invoking the spectre of English contamination. This week I’d like to dissect another ploy, used by the media to sell papers – fear mongering about foreigners. Which is to say, xenophobia.

Let’s go back to September 3 and read La Presse’s headline: “ALLOPHONES MAJORITAIRES,” written in huge, alarmist print. “Mais où sont passés les francophones?” it continued. Inside the issue were statistics that told of the decline of first-language francophones in public schools on the island of Montreal, the increase in foreign students coming to the city, and a list of the island’s most multiethnic schools – hotbeds, I assume, of cultural dilution. (It should be noted: “foreign” is defined by La Presse as “coming from anywhere outside of Quebec.”) But this two page spread wouldn’t be complete without a photo of a hijab-clad mother with two daughters, one of whom is – horrors! – also wearing a hijab. They don’t dress like us, and they don’t speak our language at home. Save us!
In its details, the coverage is less worrisome than at first glance. Tucked away in a corner of the spread is a tiny article pointing out that more and more allophones – the term refers to those whose first language is neither English nor French – attend French-language schools. There’s even a column, conveniently located on the following page, about how children don’t pay attention to ethnicity. But this wishful thinking doesn’t outweigh the headlines, layout, statistics, visuals, and interviews. The overarching effect of the coverage in La Presse is to fan the flames of a very old fear: that Montreal’s cultural syncretism will dilute, if not destroy, the culture of French Canada.

Now, I understand and support the push for the protection of endangered languages and cultures, like revival movements in Scotland or Catalonia or in indigenous communities all over North America. In these cases, it’s clear that one group has been dominated by another and needs safeguards. And indeed, French culture in this country has historically been subjugated by English Canada, thus the need for Bill 101 and similar legislation. It is an absurdity, however, to think that non-francophone immigrant communities in Montreal could endanger the French language in this province, or change the dominant culture from French-speaking to something else. They simply do not have the demographic weight.

In the end, though, the language issue is a red herring. Most migrant languages are replaced within two to three generations by the majority language of the arrival country. This nervousness about language is the surface representation of a latent anxiety about the culture of Quebec. Who owns this province’s culture?
The real fear is not that allophones will outnumber francophones, but that allophones will not assimilate into French-Canadian culture. According to an article published in Le Devoir this summer, 60 per cent of francophone Quebeckers think that immigrants should abandon their customs and traditions and become more like the majority of people in this province. Forty per cent of all Quebeckers, regardless of native tongue, believe Quebecois society is threatened by the arrival of non-Christian migrants. These attitudes, the media coverage of demographic changes, and the rhetoric of politicians like Nicolas Montmorency, whose actions were discussed in a comment piece last week entitled “Mean Streets” – all point to a fear that the “other” will dictate Quebec’s cultural destiny.

The kind of worried discourse that permeates Quebec’s provincial conversation about immigration presupposes that one’s culture has its foundation in issues like modes of dress or religious heritage, and ignores the fact that cultures are constantly changing. The members of a culture can change it as they see fit, regardless of their religion or ethnic origin, or linguistic heritage. The culture of this province is made in Gaspé and in Kahnawake, in Westmount and in Montreal North, and it’s made by French Canadians and English Canadians, Pakistanis, Haitians, and everyone in between. Culture is the common possession of all Quebeckers, not just the people that first colonized this country.

William M. Burton is The Daily’s Commentary & Compendium! editor. He’s also a U3 Honours student in Lettres et traduction françaises.