A fascinating article in La Presse this morning by Richard Y. Bourhis of the department of psychology at UQAM, outlines the current, that is to say the actual, state of balance between the francophone, anglophone and allophone communities in the province of Quebec, using figures provided by the provincial Ministry of Education, Leisure and Sport. The figures compare numbers of students between 1972 and 2012, and the author recalls that the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) was brought in in 1977, the aim being to consolidate once and for all the state of the French language in this, its North American redoubt.
I recall Premier Rene Levesque at the time saying he felt somewhat humiliated to have to bring in such measures as to deny to anglophone children whose parents had not been educated in Quebec, entry into anglophone schools, and to have to pressure children whose native tongue was neither English nor French to study in French.
There were those at the time who argued that these measures were no longer necessary, because the French language had already been rescued from its decline by the immense changes brought about in Quebec life by the Lesage government, elected in 1960, and the minority communities, including the anglophones, so it was argued, were already accepting the need to learn French in increasing numbers. Be that as it may, the political need for the Bill was still there, as powerful groups were propagating the need to diminish the still-powerful role of English in the province. And there seems now to be almost total acceptance of Bill 101 and its consequences.
I was living in Montreal from 1968 to 1975, having just returned from an eight-year assignment as the London correspondent of The Montreal Star, equipped with a family of three small boys all born in England, to whom was later added a girl born in Montreal.
On arrival we put the children into the nearest Protestant public school (the formal description of schools for the anglophones) whose students were made up of 53 per cent Greek, 17 per cent Moroccan Jews, 14 per cent Chinese and 10 per cent anglophone. They were doing things in that school, such as teaching children who didn’t know a word of English their new language, that would have freaked out most schools in Britain had they been confronted with the same needs. In those days I was very critical of schools and the schooling they provided, and after a year, dissatisfied, we took our two younger children out and decided to drop the children into the French, Catholic system, even though we were neither French nor Catholic.
We thought we were responding to an urgent political need in the community, but when we approached the nearest elementary school, they refused to take our children. This was an aspect of a rather deplorable xenophobia common among a certain strata of the francophone Quebeckers of the time (they also would not take the Moroccan Jewish kids, even though they were already French-speaking). For a year my wife, a teacher, taught the two younger children at home, and a year later as pressures to open up their intensely religious system, staffed by nuns and brothers, mounted, the Catholic school authorities agreed to admit all three boys, who were, basically put at the back of the room, ignored by the nuns, and forced to fend for themselves. There were only six anglophone children in the school.
They did learn French, but from the other children in the playground. That their system was opening up was indicated by their establishing a year later a special class for immigrant children, where their special needs were looked to --- although to tell the truth, my children were, for the most part, treated by the teachers as if they were stupid, which has not prevented them from becoming, successively, after many difficult years, a musician, a criminal lawyer, and a screenwriter.
Prof. Bourhis writes that the number of anglophone students in Quebec declined by 41 per cent from 256,000 in 1972 to 105,000 in 2012, a reflection of the departure from Quebec of 300,000 anglophone citizens following the passing of Bill 101. An additional factor, of course, was that the anglophone system was no longer permitted to shore up its numbers with francophone, allophone and immigrant students, as they had been accustomed to do. Of course, over these same years, the number of francophone students also declined by 36 per cent, even in spite of the addition of allophone and immigrant children who before went to the English-language schools. In 1972 85 per cent of the allophone students went to the English schools, whereas by 2012 that number had fallen to just under 14 per cent.
Prof Bourhis’s conclusions may surprise many: he says that because of the enthusiasm of anglophone parents for immersion French classes, and even for (like us) enrolling their children in the French schools, today anglophones are the most bilingual section of Quebec students, noting that in 2015 the scores obtained in French in provincial examinations by students from anglophone schools were 9.4 per cent higher than those obtained by students from the francophone schools, a fact that, he remarks “demonstrates that the anglophone schools and educational commissions also contribute to the development of the French fact in Quebec.”
Notably, he adds, community interest seems to be higher among anglophones than francophones, since in 2015 17.26 of eligible anglophone voters voted in elections to the anglophone school boards, compared with only 4.85 per cent of francophones who voted in their similar contests.
Even in that tiny section to which my family attached ourselves in 1969, Prof. Bourhis noted that in 2012 some 21,835 anglophones were enrolled in francophone schools. So maybe we could argue that we were slightly ahead of the game. But unfortunately our move had rather negative consequences for our children, since they were thrown into an environment in which they knew not a word of French, and were not given much help from the religion-oriented teachers in learning it.