An attempt by the Parti Québécois government to reach out to anglophone Quebecers was overshadowed Thursday by concerns from municipalities about proposed changes to the province's language law that could strip them of their bilingual status.
Jean-François Lisée, the minister responsible for the anglophone community, made the rounds of English-language community organizations, announcing a $20,000 grant to finance production costs and a provincial "awareness" tour of a musical project aimed at strengthening ties between Montreal's French and English-speaking communities.
He said the project, a song and video by Montreal hip-hop musician David Hodges — commissioned last spring by the Quebec Community Groups Network — sends a message to Quebec anglophones who feel disenfranchised.
"You are Quebecers," said Lisée at the launch of the song Notre Home. "Stop doubting. Stop asking permission. Get over it."
Threat to bilingual towns 'odious,' says mayor
But Lisée's bridge-building efforts come just as Quebec municipalities deemed officially bilingual mount a pressure campaign to defeat provisions of Bill 14, a bill to amend the French Language Charter, which could strip communities of their bilingual status when their population of native English-language speakers drops below 50 per cent.
"We know that half the communities in Quebec that have bilingual status are under threat," said Côte Saint-Luc Mayor Anthony Housefather.
Housefather, who calls the provisions "odious," and "a shocking attack on the anglophone population," has launched a campaign on his city's website called bilingualstatus.com, asking people to contact their MNAs to let them know they oppose the bill.
"This is one of those issues where the vast majority of Quebecers — English and French speakers, in my view — do not feel that it is necessary to remove bilingual status from those 86 communities that have had it since 1977," said Housefather. "The only people who really care passionately about it may well be the PQ MNAs in the National Assembly."
Housefather said many of those 86 municipalities and boroughs, including his own, have already adopted resolutions opposing the changes.
He said the thrust of their campaign now is to persuade opposition parties to vote against Bill 14 — something the Liberals have already promised to do. If the Coalition Avenir Québec does the same, the bill would be defeated.
Lisée feeling the heat
Until now, towns deemed officially bilingual when the French Language Charter, also known as Bill 101, was first passed in 1977 have had that status grandfathered, even when their population of native English speakers dropped below that 50 per cent mark.
Lisée is clearly feeling the heat, reminding journalists that if the bill passes, when a town's anglophone population drops below 50 per cent, the new law's provisions would merely "trigger a discussion" on its bilingual status.
"I have said publicly, and I will restate, that I think there should be a much lower threshold [than 50 per cent.]" Lisée told reporters. "I say, we should trigger this discussion only when it drops to 40 per cent."
Language watchdog nixes bilingual newsletter
But even that concession isn't likely to win much support in many Quebec towns and cities that don't have bilingual status and still try to cater to their English-language residents.
In the Laurentians town of Sainte-Agathe, where less than 10 per cent of the population of 10,000 is English-speaking, the municipality was forced this month to stop publishing its quarterly newsletter in both French and English.
Quebec's language watchdog agency, l'Office Québécois de la Langue Française, issued that order after an OQLF inspector made a surprise visit to Sainte-Agathe early last autumn.
Sainte-Agathe's Deputy Mayor Jean-Léo Legault said the town was also told to replace several English computer keyboards found in its offices and take down a few public signs that were in English.
The bilingual newsletter relayed information such as new business openings, public works initiatives and other municipal news, and English-speaking citizens appreciated getting a bilingual version, Legault said.
"Most of them do speak French or can read French, I believe," said Jean-Léo Legault. "But I think it was a good thing to communicate with them in their own language.
"We are not the only municipality [where] they did that," Legault said about the impromptu inspection. "Was that somebody complaining about it? I have no idea how they work."
A spokesman for the OQLF, Martin Bergeron, said the inspections are routine.
"The goal is to make sure the [French Language] Charter is applied," said Bergeron.
He said under the language law, only municipalities with bilingual status can publish bilingual documents. "When a municipality wants to inform its citizens with a mass communication, [it has] to do it in French," he said.
Legault said Sainte-Agathe has found a legal way to communicate the same information to its English-speaking residents, taking out space in the local community newspaper.
Still, the OQLF's order has left both French and English-speaking residents of the community perplexed and angry.
"I'm incensed," said Sandy Baylin, who lives in Sainte-Agathe.
"Jean-François Lisée is a wolf in sheep's clothing ... I don't trust him at all," she said. "This action ... just cultivates a field of mistrust and disrespect. It doesn't bring people together."