Identity politics and policies of social engineering around the language question are unsurprisingly at play in the Quebec provincial election campaign.
The perennial and divisive question of french language rights was brought back into electioneering discourse last week starting with the CAQ’s proposal to expel new immigrants to the province if they have failed to achieve an adequate level of French after three years. François Legault, whose party is leading in the latest polls cited the fact that more than half of the 50,000 immigrants arriving in the province annually do not speak French, and warned that the french language is at risk of gradually disappearing in the province.
The choice by Legault and the CAQ to more intimately tie together the issues of immigration and french language policy is likely a move to appease nationalist elements not only within his own base, but also that of the Parti Quebecois (PQ). Legault appealed directly to PQ supporters last week, asking for their support in strategic ridings in order to ensure the defeat of the Liberals led by Philippe Couillard. To this constituency Legault said, “You have a choice between voting for a party that is at its knees before the federal (government), or a nationalist party that is going to defend Quebec. That’s the CAQ.”
The PQ has responded, jumping into the immigration debate. After previously refusing to propose a precise number of immigrants that they would welcome to the province each year, the nationalist party has now set a target of 28,000-40,000 annually. Party leader Jean-François Lisée blasted Legault’s immigration plan, saying, “Allowing the entry of 40,000 immigrants each year without requiring even the most basic level of French will provoke an acceleration of the decline of our language. It’s dangerous.”
In an attempt to one-up the CAQ on the language question, the PQ is also proposing new requirements for anglophones already living in the province. Their proposal would force anglophone post-secondary students to complete at least one academic session at a francophone institution, or be refused their college-level certificate at anglophone Cégeps. The proposal, being sold as Law 202, is a throwback to the flagship language policies, Law 101, introduced in the 70s by PQ royalty, René Lévesque.
For his part, Liberal leader Philippe Couillard is defending the maintenance of the status quo on immigration. His government has gone the other way on immigration and language policy, introducing a new program before the election, relaxing french language requirements for a select group of immigrant entrepreneurs. The liberal stance on immigration focuses on the economic needs of the province. Couillard argued that about half the jobs in the province in recent years have been filled by immigrants. In response to PQ and CAQ fears of language loss tied to the immigration issue, he said, “Immigrants are learning French, and you know where they learn it best? At work.”
The next government of Quebec will be chosen by voters on October 1.