On Language and Quebec's Obsession on French


A couple of days ago, a friend of mine posted a video on Facebook relating to Chiac, a marvelous mash-up of english and old french that is spoken in New Brunswick and some parts of the surrounding provinces.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w36ZLQ5H2so]

Obviously, the video is a parody. There is no such thing as Malroney’s secret plan for nation-wide convergence to chiac, and the Institut nationale du Chiac. Radio-Canada ISN’T pushing for more chiac; in fact, any french-speaking Canadian knows that our public broadcaster has a soft spot for sanitized, text-book french, mostly stripped of local linguistic particularities.

But despite the humurous tone, to me, Chiac maybe is the solution, or at least part of it. The solution to Quebec’s torments on it’s identity, the problem it has with setting forth what is it’s culture and defining it’s essence.

The debate on cultural identity obviously has a lot of things to do with language; it’s usually the primary characteristic that is noted when explaining the schism between Quebec and the ROC to outsiders. Essentially, it is a symbolic difference that, according to me,helps perpetuate the idea that Quebecers and Canadians are intrinsically different and irremediably incompatible. Most in favor of the protection of the french language carry the message that the French language is an important part of our heritage, and therefor must be protected by all means necessary. How does enforcing the perpetuation of a language given to use just under 400 years ago contribute to defining our collective identity?

What I see in this is nothing else than obstinate conservatism, refusal to accept change and the fluid nature of both collective and individual identity. I find it quite ironic that the proponents of french, delved so deep in this conservatism, are unable to understand the aspirations of their english counterparts. Likewise, these people are eager to perpetuate certain aspects of their heritage: the presence of symbols of the monarchy within our federal establishments is the first example that comes to mind. The difference between the two cases being that I haven’t seen any english people talking about the need for legislation to safeguard their heritage… it just perpetuates naturally, waning to more distant symbolism as time passes.

That said, I believe that the solution to Quebec’s torments on identity is fundamentally the acceptance of change, perpetuated by both our artistic elite and legislation like Bill 101. In this sense, chiac is a beautiful example of how cultural baggage combines with time to create something truely unique, something that truely defines one’s identity; while chiac can clearly be identified as the language of the people of the maritimes, the same thing can not be done with Quebec’s french. The struggle to keep alive certain aspects of our identity has ruined our opportunity to become something else.

The truth is, unlike what kids are still being told in schools across the province, you can’t kill a culture just by exposing it to others and allowing it to integrate certain aspects. The beautiful thing about cultural heritage is that it lives on no matter what… culture doesn’t die, it transforms. It is my opinion that if anything is going to kill off french and the Quebecois culture, it’s an implosion, a result of the amassed frustration of years of being forced into the state-defined mold; cultural change comparable in scale only with the Revolution Tranquille. If Quiet Revolution brought on a flurry of nationalist tendencies and a providence state which still plagues us, what will a second cultural revolution bring with it? Far-right neo-nationalists? Far-left revolutionaries? I see our habit of cultural protectionism not only as something that is unwanted, but also potentially dangerous.