Montreal

Quebec's premier rejects multiculturalism as province celebrates Fête nationale

Rather than multiculturalism, Premier François Legault said he prefers "interculturalism" as new immigrants must integrate and adapt to Quebec culture. He said the French language is the cornerstone of that integration.

Quebec separatists have long slammed Canada's multiculturalism policy, expert says

Maram Makhlouf, a Grade 6 student in Montreal, disagrees with Premier François Legault’s assertion that multiculturalism is a threat to the French language. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC)

Maram Makhlouf, a Grade 6 student, moved to Quebec from Germany about three years ago and on Thursday she was in a Montreal park with her family celebrating the province's national holiday, or Fête nationale.

She said the day is "really important to me even if I am not from here."

But she doesn't agree with Premier François Legault's assertion earlier in the day that multiculturalism is a threat to the French language and that "we need to fight against multiculturalism, but not because we are against others."

Makhlouf is originally from Tunisia where she attended school in French and, she explained, she has been mastering the language while here in Quebec. It's a language that is easy enough for new immigrants to learn, she said.

"I think it's really important to live with different languages. I speak English. I speak French, and I think that helps me a lot in my life," said. 

Legault said Quebec is a small nation that speaks French and "we should be proud of that." 

Rather than multiculturalism, he said he prefers "interculturalism" as new immigrants are expected to integrate and adapt to Quebec culture. He said the French language is the cornerstone of that integration.

"It's important that we don't put all cultures on the same level; that's why we oppose multiculturalism," Legault said.

Quebec's national holiday, Fête nationale, was celebrated on Friday for the first time since the pandemic began. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Legault said Quebec's position is at odds with the federal government's approach, which pushes for multiculturalism.

The comments came a day after his French language minister, Simon Jolin-Barrette, addressed the prestigious l'Academie française in Paris.

He described Canadian multiculturalism as a barrier to Quebec's efforts to become a distinct nation.

Some Quebecers believe Legault is stirring up this debate in an election year as a way to attract the separatist vote.

"Trashing multiculturalism in francophone Quebec is a political winner, at least for Legault, especially when he focuses on francophone voters who live outside of Montreal," said Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

"For the most part, it's not risky for him politically to do that." 

Legault's comments come on the heels of his own rejection of systemic racism in Quebec, and controversial legislation his government has passed like Bill 21, which prohibits many public sector employees from wearing religious symbols such as a hijab at work. 

His rejection of multiculturalism in this context may stir even more worry and confusion in some groups, but for many Quebec separatists, multiculturalism is "kind of a dirty word. They think it's not compatible with their vision of the Quebec nation," said Béland.

Béland said there's a long history of defiance toward multiculturalism, which became federal policy in the early 1970s under Pierre Trudeau. Many separatists thought it was part of a plot to marginalize francophones within Canada, he said.

Melissa Claisse, spokesperson for the Welcome Collective, a group that advocates for newcomers, said she was shocked to hear Legault's comments.

She said Legault's assertion that not all cultures are on the same level was "very offensive," especially to those who come from all over the world and identify as Quebecers.

"I haven't met any refugee claimants who don't want to learn French," she said. "I think the vast majority of them, of course, want to speak the language of the place in which they are going to settle."

with files from Rowan Kennedy and Valeria Cori-Manocchio

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