Jean Charest wants Quebec anglophones to show what they 'stand for'

Former premier speaks to young anglophones in the Eastern Townships about what it's like to jostle between linguistic divides.

Former premier tells young anglos: French Quebecers need to hear you

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest says Quebec's English community has to be assertive in what it stands for. (Reuters)

Former premier Jean Charest, a man with both Anglo-Irish and French heritage, has navigated periods of acute linguistic tension in Quebec. At times, he was centre-stage. 

He delved into those experiences earlier this week, when he spoke at a forum on English-speaking youth in the province's Eastern Townships region, south of Montreal, at Bishop's University.

Afterward, speaking to CBC News, Charest reflected on what it was like for him to jostle between the linguistic divides of French and English, the country's two official languages, as provincial leader.

This is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

A 'grand bargain' needed for English schools

What I think has changed and what needs to change is an acknowledgement of the role of the English-speaking community, how the institutions of the anglophone community are very important for the future of our fellow citizens.

A good example of things that we should try to explore is a sort of a grand bargain in the area of education. There are a lot of English schools that are not full.

There are francophone schools that would like to have more time to teach English. There has to be something there that we can do together that would allow both communities to benefit from the other.

Role of English-speakers 

I think the English community has to be assertive in what it stands for and what they want to bring to Quebec society. Assertive in a way where they are able to say "we believe in the French language and culture.

In January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau drew criticism when he told the attendee of a town hall in Sherbrooke, Que., who'd asked a question in English that he would respond in French. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

We are part of this society and we want to play a role." I think that's something that the francophone side of Quebec needs to hear.

Integrating English and French as premier

[One challenge was] trying to get over what people believe to be the anglophone community. Les préjugés. The assumptions. Which are false. Which don't stand today.

[For example], that the anglophone community is rich. That they live in Westmount. That they don't want to speak French. Or, that learning English is hostile or contrary to the interest of the future of the French language and culture.

All of these things that speak to another time, when in fact, the anglophone community in Quebec is very diverse, lives in the region. It's not a [financially] rich community.

The other challenge was to make the case that the anglophone community needs its own institutions for its survival. That includes school board and hospitals and social services. You have to explain that.

On the future of bilingualism in Quebec

English-speaking Quebec is bilingual. That's what I've seen happen in the last 40 years in Quebec. English-speaking Quebecers have learned French, and they're quite proud of it.

Now, in the case of French-speaking Quebecers, it's more complicated because of that constant question that will always be there — the survival of the French language and culture.

At one point, I think we will be able to reach this consensus where you can very well learn another language and encourage this French language to survive and thrive. It is possible.

We had an ironic period when I was premier where we evoked this idea of teaching a third language. It was interesting because in the thought process of French-speaking Quebecers it was almost as though it was OK to learn English if you were on the way to learning Spanish. But just learning English, [people felt they] were being assimilated.

It was unusual, but it sort of spoke to how we need to give security to French-speaking Quebecers.

with files from Alison Brunette