Quebec’s English-speaking community fighting to maintain disappearing institutional base built over centuries

By Dan Lamoureux

Canadians are blessed with the opportunity to live, play and work in two official languages. Ensuring this gift is a defining characteristic of our nation’s history.

Long ago, we discarded the notion that English and French would be geographically limited, and we have constitutionally guaranteed the presence of our national languages from sea to sea to sea. The government of Canada’s commitment to this ideal is expressed through the Official Languages Act, advancing the equality of status and use of the English and French languages in Canadian society. A key element of this commitment is the support the federal government provides to enhancing the vitality of English and French linguistic minority communities.

A vital community is self-aware, possesses a critical mass of people and capacity that permits a degree of self-reliance, and is able to perpetuate its identity and culture. In the case of a linguistic minority, a vital community is able to provide its members with a space in which their language can live and thrive. This means having economic opportunities, public services, community meeting places and institutions like hospitals and schools available in the minority language. It also means ensuring an environment where youth and newcomers see a future.

Because we define official language minority communities in terms of provincial and territorial boundaries, Canada’s English linguistic minority communities are located in Quebec. English-speaking Quebec is Canada’s largest official language minority community—there are more than one million residents whose first official language is English. This unique and diverse community is unsurprisingly Canada’s most bilingual group of English speakers. And although 84 per cent of our community lives within the Montreal Census Metropolitan Area, more than 210,000 community members live in other Quebec regions, away from English-speaking Montreal’s institutional base.

The government of Canada is committed to developing a new official languages plan to support English and French linguistic minority communities. The English-speaking community of Quebec has not equitably benefitted from previous strategies, nor does our community have an equal voice in the national official languages discussion. Policy makers and leaders have often relied upon unsupported presumptions that because English is safe, English linguistic minorities need less attention. In reality, many English-speaking communities across Quebec are struggling to survive; we are fighting to ensure the sustainability of regional communities, and working hard largely on our own to alleviate the social and economic challenges faced by most minorities.

Additionally, federal support of official language minority communities is built on the cooperation of provinces and territories, in whose jurisdiction lie most of the areas that ensure community vitality. Quebec does not recognize English-speaking Quebec as a linguistic minority, and so our community must frequently approach Ottawa for support. Perceptions of federal government infringement on Quebec’s powers are especially sensitive, since this directly triggers national unity concerns.

The history of Canada’s English and French linguistic minority communities is very different, and so we are dissimilar in structure and capacity. The English-speaking community of Quebec is fighting to maintain a disappearing institutional base that it has built over centuries. We are not protecting a language, but communities that possess an identity and culture unique from Canada’s English majority. And because we are located within one province, our community sector organizations are local or provincial in nature and scope, as are most sector umbrella organizations. Very few have the capacity to engage at the national level, and fewer are funded to do so. And so, even when our community is present at the national table, it often lacks the policy background and support to effectively engage.

Despite these challenges, we remain optimistic. Canada’s official languages strategies since the 2003 Action Plan have increasingly attempted to address the needs of English-speaking Quebec. Awareness of our community, and the obligation of all federal institutions to take positive measures that enhance our vitality is growing. The levels of support we receive from some institutions and individuals within the government of Canada and organizations subject to the Official Language Act such as Via Rail, Air Canada, and Canada Post is, on the whole, outstanding. We know there is a sincere wish to help us in most federal institutions.

The government of Quebec is also showing an interest in our community and willingness to help, fuelled by the realization that English-speaking Quebec is a valuable asset and that regional communities in particular must be nurtured.

We encourage political and policy leaders to get to know English-speaking Quebec, and understand its unique challenges. And we look forward to participating in the upcoming public consultations to help shape a new official languages plan tailored to equitably support Canada’s English linguistic minorities.

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