Deux Solitudes: Unraveling Canada's French-English Divide

Binghamton University

In Quebec, the divide between French and English goes beyond verb conjugations and long-ago roots in Latin and proto-Germanic, respectively. There are deep divisions rooted in cultural identity, which can lend themselves to conflict in the political realm.

"When I say that they don't speak the same language, I don't just mean French and English," said Binghamton University Associate Professor of French Linguistics Yulia Bosworth. "Even though both stem from Western liberal democracies, they see the social fabric and where the language belongs in it very, very differently."

After her switch from theoretical phonology to sociolinguistics, Bosworth wrote a 2019 article in the American Review of Canadian Studies arguing that the criticism of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's "bad" French in Quebec is underpinned by an interplay of dominant language ideologies in Quebec society, issues of identity and belonging, and some socio-political factors. The article was widely covered in Canadian mainstream press, in both English and French periodicals from coast to coast and inspired Bosworth to continue her trajectory.

Since then, she has written a variety of journal articles on questions of language and identity in Canada as they play out in journalistic and political discourse, and was recently named president of the American Council for Québec Studies.

This past semester was exceptionally busy, including a stint as a scholar-in-residence at SUNY Plattsburgh's Center for Canadian Studies.

During her residency, she gave four talks, including the 2024 Distinguished Québec Address on "French as 'the Common Language of the Québec Nation': Legislating Language and Identity in Contemporary Québec." Held in March, the annual address is typically delivered by Québec ministers, political figures and prominent Quebec scholars.

Also this spring, Bosworth presented "Navigating Identity and Belonging in François Legault's Quebec: An Analysis of Discourse(s) in the Context of Bill 96" at the 12th Québec Studies Colloquium at Bishop's University, one of Quebec's three English-language universities. In May, she received a grant from the Ministère des Relations internationales et de la Francophonie du Gouvernement du Québec for her research on the quality of French in the linguistic landscape of Quebec universities.

So, what is the status of French in Quebec today?

"It's complicated," she said. "Language plays a crucial role in the construction and negotiation of identity in Quebec, a society that is ethnically, culturally and consequently linguistically diverse."

The two solitudes

The colonial peoples who founded modern Canada - Francophone and Anglophone - remain the "two solitudes," a term popularized by Canadian novelist Hugh MacLennan.

The collective identity of Quebecers is based on the centrality and preservation of the French language, Bosworth pointed out. But there's a generational divide: Younger generations may not remember the struggle against discrimination and oppression by Anglophone Canadians. They are also exposed to English-language media and popular culture in their daily lives.

The Quiet Revolution that began during the 1960s saw the birth of Quebec's language regime and efforts to protect the use of French. Bill 96, passed in 2022, intended to strengthen the status of French in the province but also sparked controversy for its treatment of language minorities, such as the historic English-speaking population, Indigenous communities and non-Francophone immigrants, Bosworth said.

"The goal of the bill was to strengthen the status of French in Quebec, which is viewed by many as declining," she said.

But is that perceived decline real? At this point in time, it's hard to say.

On the one hand, there are the optimists who view the "anglicization" of French in Quebec as a natural process that occurs whenever two languages are in close contact and do not necessarily consider the decline in some indicators of the use of French as consequential and alarming. And then there are those who lament the decline of French in the workplace, in commercial spaces and at school. In fact, close to 70% of Francophone Quebecers believe that French is currently under threat in Quebec.

The premier of Quebec, for example, has expressed fear that, without intervention, the province would become like Louisiana, with its French heritage a cultural veneer This comment, however, provoked a highly negative reaction within Louisiana's dedicated and dynamic Francophone community and was debunked by a host of scholars spanning various fields as a faulty comparison and an unfair characterization of the state of French in Louisiana.

"You also have a regional factor that comes into play, where the greater Montreal area is a lot less French-speaking than the rest of the province," she observed. "Some years ago, a census showed for the first time that the percentage of the residents of the island of Montreal who declared French as their mother tongue fell below 50%."

Breaching that threshold sounded alarm bells for language proponents. That alarm prompted the current governing party in Quebec to pass Bill 96, which strengthened the 1977 Charter of the French language, also known as Bill 101, that declared French the official language of Quebec's government, justice system, education, business, commerce and normal, everyday life.

However, measures to combat the perceived decline of French can feel restrictive and discriminatory, such as a ceiling for admissions to public English-speaking two-year colleges that precede university-level study, or the requirement for immigrants to receive public services only in French six months after their arrival to Quebec. Those restrictions can lead to backlash, particularly from English-speaking Canadians - a good example of the conflict between individual and collective rights.

Anglophones often define freedom as an individual's ability to do as they choose; in societies like Quebec, however, that individual freedom threatens the culture's collective right to thrive. Canadians of other origins and the country's Indigenous communities also have their perspective, which tends to align more with Anglophone discourse.

"This misalignment of perspectives leads to animosity and impasse, which is fueled by this lack of understanding of the other's perspective," Bosworth said. "My hope is that my research can somehow help the sides see where the other is coming from."

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