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Language politics and Quebec’s crippled democracy

by Antoni Nerestant January 27, 2015
Language politics and Quebec’s crippled democracy

How arguing over language turns politics into a zero-sum game

We got another rousing reminder last week that as long as language issues continue to dictate Quebec politics, democracy in this province will remain a flawed concept.

Despite the urging of Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages Graham Fraser, the Quebec government refused to create an office of anglophone affairs.

It appears that aiding a province’s linguistic minority to navigate the political realm is not always in vogue in la belle province, even if there are such offices servicing francophone minorities in other provinces.

After all, Quebec’s divisive battles over language cultivate a fear of cultural assimilation and turn politics into a zero-sum game that has a detrimental effect on the democratic process. Some could say that many votes in last year’s general election were cast to avoid an undesired outcome rather than to pursue desired policies. In such circumstances, the ability to hold the governing party accountable becomes severely compromised.

The cringe-worthy PQ Charter of Values is a thing of the past. Quebec sovereignty appears to be as unlikely as it has been in decades. Yet there is an odd feeling that the Couillard government is back to dealing with the issues that matter the most—the economy, education and health—by being much less malleable to citizens’ concerns.

Fraser’s recommendation coincides with rising concerns that the Liberal Party’s proposed Bill 10 will erode anglophone control over its institutions and hamper the delivery of health and social services within their communities.

In his public support of the government’s refusal, David Birnbaum—one of three anglophone MNAs in the Couillard cabinet—encapsulated an essential problem in Quebec democracy.

He acknowledged that responses to anglophone concerns can be slow, only to boast shortly thereafter that the Liberals are more understanding to those issues than their PQ predecessors (stating the painfully obvious).

 In short, the Liberals have spared Anglophones and many other Quebecers that are turned off by questions of sovereignty, and it seems they should all be thankful regardless of how or when their other vital concerns are dealt with.

Any concession to Anglophones will be interpreted as a loss for the francophone majority by Philippe Couillard’s opponents who—for now—represent a worst case scenario for many Quebecers.

Democracies are never perfect. But the word “impunity” should never be contemplated to describe a party’s rule. The lingering cloud of language politics in Quebec does just that.

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