Jean-François Lisée is off to a good start in his Ministerial rôle, by Linda Leith

Jean-François Lisée got off on the wrong foot with Quebec's Anglophones during the election campaign in August, but now that he is elected, he is calling for "reciprocal empathy." The new Minister of International Relations, who is also responsible for relations with the Anglophone minority, said yesterday that he wants Francophones to have empathy for "the English community in Quebec." 

This is a significant step in the right direction, and Lisée should be commended for it. The very fact that he acknowledges that there is an English-speaking minority in Quebec is an improvement, for the Liberal government of Jean Charest made no such acknowledgement. The very fact that a senior Minister is charged with improving relations between the majority and that minority is another improvement.

Lisée went on to say that the "English-speaking community has to stay strong and vibrant, and the English community has to have empathy for the fact that the French majority has to stay strong and vibrant." These are fine words. I couldn't agree more.

"So we share some linguistic anxiety for the future, and if we start seeing that as a shared goal, to say here for generations to come with a strong and vibrant English minority and a vibrant French majority and say, 'Hey. There's some trouble here for the English minority. We should do something.' And, 'Hey, maybe it's the case that if you don't have a majority of French speakers on the island of Montreal, it's a worry.'"

This last is likely -- as The Gazette reporter says -- a reference to the Parti Québécois's intention to extend the reach of Bill 101 to apply to Cégeps, a move opposed not only by Anglos but also by many Francophones as well as the two main Opposition parties in the National Assembly. A reminder, in other words, that the proof of the Lisée pudding will be in the eating. 

But there were more fine words: "I think we have to get out of this idea that if one community in Quebec takes a step forward, it means that others have to take a step backward." Referring to an article he wrote in L'Actualité last Spring, lamenting that 74 per cent of Quebec Anglophones do not know the pop singer Marie-Mai, he then added, "The joke now is that I want every Anglo to know Marie-Mai, and I can live with that... I'd like every Franco to know Leonard Cohen and many more." He sees his first task as trying to "make all Quebecers think outside the box" on these linguistic issues. "We're not in a box. We're in the Quebec garden and if everyone grows, that's fine."

Yes, let us think outside the box. And the box, over the past few years, has seen Francophones blaming Anglophones and immigrants for what is perceived as the decline of French on the island of Montreal. There are some for whom the only good Francophone is a Québécois de vieille souche. Lisée himself has argued in favour in immigrants who live in French, whom he distinguishes from those who are merely fluent in French.

On a practical level, there is a dearth of interest in tackling -- or even acknowledging -- the issue of Francophone outmigration to the off-island suburbs. This is a phenomenon for which Anglos and immigrants cannot be blamed, although they do seem to end up with some of the blame, since the net result is an increase in the proportion of non-Francophones on the island itself. Monsieur Lisée has not hitherto shown any interest in this issue, but perhaps it is far enough out of the box to warrant his attention.

There has been a regrettable decline in civility in Montreal over language use over the past year, some of it -- it has to be said, and it is being said -- attributable to Monsieur Lisée's own writings and public statements. There have been too many shows of impatience and anger, with each side blaming the other. With few exceptions, this has all been a question of words -- sharp words, throw-away words, unthinking words, dismissive words -- but they have succeeded in hardening attitudes and deepening divisions. Fine words are not all it takes to improve matters, but they can help a great deal in a city as language-obsessed as Montreal.

So, good start, Monsieur Lisée. We'll all be following your progress -- and our own -- with interest. In the meantime, let me express the wish that every Francophone know not only Leonard Cohen but also some of the writers and artists who are living and working in English in Quebec right now. And that Anglophones become familiar not (or not only or even mainly) with Marie Mai but with Catherine Mavrikakis and Dany Laferrière and Jean-Claude Germain.

© Linda Leith 2012

Linda Leith is the author, most recently, of Writing in the Time of Nationalism (Signature 2010) and Marrying Hungary (2008) and is the publisher of Salon .ll. and Linda Leith Publishing.

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