I have lived in Montreal, in the province of Québec for almost seven years. Almost upon arrival, I perceived the city’s language barriers, which I undertook to break by perfecting its two official languages. I pushed myself a bit further, and voluntarily decided to only speak French (my third language) in my everyday living in Québec. A couple of years after I first set foot in Montreal, I met my partner, a proud Québécoise, with whom I am happily engaged. I have always felt there was a beautiful synergy between myself and Quebec, in that we both belong in each other’s core. This sense of belonging made it difficult for me to understand what happened yesterday night.
As I was getting ready to finalize the details of an online purchase at a Canadian retail store, an automated message appeared on my screen, saying that due to Québec’s language legislation, the product I was about to purchase (whose original language was English) was not available in the province of Québec. This prompts a series of questions pertaining to the overarching nature of language laws in Québec, and their effect on issues such as inter-provincial trade, the survival of Canadian businesses, the ever-changing cultural structure of our society, and one’s freedom of choice in the marketplace.
There is a big problem when a product sold by a Canadian retailer in Canadian soil fails to be sold and transported to another provincial jurisdiction due to a language law. This would certainly not be the case if a product were shipped from abroad, where other laws governing trade and taxes would dictate the outcome of such a transaction. In the case of a product sold in Canada, one would expect its mobility to be more fluent within provinces, given that the product is being sold inside the country. This however is not the case, at least not in Québec. If language laws set limits to the effect of ruling what consumers are able to purchase within Canada, then it is no exaggeration to say that Canadian retailers, and therefore, real economic growth, are at risk.
Putting aside the deep-seated emotion connected with language issues in Québec, I believe there is a problem of vast proportions when such language legislation succeeds in preventing consumers from favouring Canadian retailers. As many Canadians know, it is oftentimes more economically feasible to give preference to U.S companies and retailers due to higher supply and lower taxes in that country. This has the effect of imposing de facto barriers on Canadian businesses. These barriers are further enhanced by the increasingly accessible use of online transactions in the marketplace. The imposition of additional obstacles in the form of pervasive language laws proves to be counterproductive, especially in the face of a highly competitive U.S market, where essentially, efficiency overrides cultural pride.
In North America, we pride ourselves for having a “free market” system, where supply and demand govern, for good or ill, the rules of our consuming patterns. But it is hard to envision that such a system indeed exists in its true form when there are laws that result in a reduction of consumers’ spectrum of choice. This is certainly the case in Québec, where the limiting factor takes the form of intrusive language laws. Furthermore, one cannot argue that policy is reflective of our society’s needs when it does not account for its evolving cultural make-up.
Québec is a place open to immigration, and as more newcomers establish homes and form families in this province, the present-day structure of our society will continue to change. Many of these individuals may want to pass on traditions, customs and languages from their homelands to their children. Will this be an impossibility under laws that disallow the use of other languages other than French? Policy needs to be reflective of this cultural fact. Our current policy governing language, as it stands today, is becoming less adequate as Québec’s multicultural mosaic becomes more diverse and intricate. Such an adaptation does not entail abolishing language laws altogether, but it most certainly needs diluting them to better reflect the social and cultural point where Québec currently stands.
Québec is the most vibrant place I have ever lived in, but there exists a political class that keeps this wonderful place chained to the past, and renders policy inapplicable to the challenges we face today. But I am optimistic about the future, as a new generation rises and replaces old debates with new ideas. I may never be seen as a true Québécois, but I feel like one, and it will be my mission to raise my children to be proud of their home province, and have them embrace French and English as two distinct, yet intertwined languages, and no language law will ever inform that decision.