The great Quebecois language balance: Reviewing a guide to interculturalism

Reviewed in this essay: L’Interculturalisme: Un point du vue québécois, Gérard Bouchard, Boréal, 2012.

Despite the arrival of spring and the Habs’ fantastic playing, Quebec is once again at the brink of an existential crisis. Passions are stirred over Bill 14. Proposed by the PQ “separatist” government, Bill 14 attempts to enforce the supremacy of French in Quebec at the expense of other languages. While the safeguarding of French remains consensual in Quebec, pundits have vociferously criticized how the bill curtails the rights of Anglo-Québécois. In short, discussions on Bill 14 illustrate an opposition between the collective rights of the Franco majority and the individual rights of the Anglo minority within Quebec.

In this context, sociologist Gérard Bouchard’s L’interculturalisme: un point de vue québécois provides a useful framework to reflect on the issues triggered by Quebec cultural interventionism. Bouchard advocates for integration between the majority culture and minority cultures while respecting a set of fundamental values enacted by the majority. In practice, Bouchard’s theory supposes the clear enunciation of collective norms, and the negotiation of reasonable accommodations for individual rights. As we see with Bill 14, the enunciation of collective norms can be shocking because it “accepts” the power imbalance between majority and minority groups, and legitimizes a certain level of coercion by the majority.

In this way, Bouchard’s interculturalism differs from Canadian multiculturalism. While orthodox multiculturalism tends to give equal value to all cultures in a given society, interculturalism explicitly recognizes duality between the majority culture and minority cultures. In other words, while multiculturalism gives precedence to individual rights and freedom, interculturalism emphasizes the importance of collective rights and values to sustain a harmonious society.

Bouchard carefully notes that there should not be a hierarchy between minority and majority cultures, and that assimilation to the majority culture does not constitute an objective of interculturalism. Rather, the idea is to maximize interactions and exchanges between the majority culture and the minority cultures. Eventually, these interactions engage slight modification of the majority culture and the minority cultures in a process of cultural integration.

However, when it comes to defining French as the (only) common language of Quebec society, Bouchard recognizes that it is more difficult to maintain an absence of hierarchy between majority and minority cultures, and due respect for minority rights. This is especially true in the case of the Anglo-Québécois minority, which deserves special recognition because of its long-term participation in Quebec society. For these reasons, Bouchard seems generally skeptical about increased legalization to enforce French as the common language. In any case, all relevant groups should be involved in the development of such a drastic measure.

Finally, in the search of a perfect balance between collective and minority rights, Bouchard’s rule of thumb appears to be the absence of easy answers. The only solution is long-term integration, which passes through more dialogue and interaction between the majority culture and the minority cultures.

In the meantime, if the Habs continue to play so well, eventual playoff success may well provide a good occasion for bonding between Quebecers of all cultures, in all languages.