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What constitutes a francophone?
Even on a pleasant and mild Friday evening, a public discussion, debate or prediction about the future state of affairs in Quebec is still able to draw quite an audience.
That was the case recently when Jean-François Lisée, author and former political adviser to both Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, and Charles Taylor, author and philosopher, presented their differing views on the province's future to a standing-room-only crowd in the Stephen Leacock Building.
In his 45-minute introduction, Lisée described the paradoxical situation Quebec finds itself in. He referred to Quebec as "a society on top of its game," yet one which might be headed toward economic and political weakness because of its steadily decreasing population and because of what he sees as the increasing federal control over matters crucial to preserving the uniqueness of Quebec.
The power of the Supreme Court of Canada as a centralizing force, for example, was raised as a concern. "As we will see the demographic decline of Quebecers, it's entirely possible that the next generation of Supreme Court judges will strike down the provisions of Bill 101 on schooling because it contradicts the Charter's article on equality of Canadians," said Lisée. Referring to the past academic musings of professor turned federal cabinet minister Stéphane Dion, Liseé added, "That is why (Dion) said we should change the constitution to make sure that Quebec has a predominance of power on all linguistic policy.
"Of course, now that he's a 'warrior' he sees things differently," Liseé said of Dion, the chief architect of the federal government's Clarity Bill.
For the moment, Quebec is doing fine, noted Lisée. The rate of business creation in the province over the last 10 years, he said, was three times bigger here than in Ontario. In education, Lisée pointed out that before 1960, Quebecers were arguably the least educated group in North America. As of 1995, however, he said that Quebec had the highest proportion of people with high school diplomas -- higher than the Canadian national average, the US and the OECD countries. The same goes for university degrees.
Despite Montreal's unflattering designation as the poverty capital of Canada, Quebec has the fifth lowest poverty rate in the world and the third lowest in the country, said Lisée. Gender-based economic inequalities are also lower here than elsewhere in North America, he said.
Yet, while the province enjoys enviable economic and social growth, and while it finds itself historically and geographically situated where Anglo-American and European cultures combine favourably, Quebec also faces the troubling reality of a declining population, especially among francophones, which would reduce the political clout the province has within Canada.
The delicate balance of francophones, anglophones and allophones on the island of Montreal -- which fosters the city's high rate of bilingualism and its ability to attract unique business and research opportunities because of its Anglo-American and European links -- risks being upset by French Quebec's low birthrate, Lisée said.
In order to maintain Quebec's advantageous position, he considers the 1991 linguistic breakdown of the city to be ideal: roughly 69 per cent French-speaking and 31 per cent English-speaking. Within a few decades, he said, demographers predict that the francophone portion will dip below 50 per cent partly because many allophones will not have assimilated properly, a quality determined by the use of French in the home.
Taylor, an emeritus professor of philosophy, agreed that the province's dwindling population was a "terrible thing for the economic future of Quebec," but "our ability to fend off absolute or relative population decline is going to turn on whether we can get immigrants coming," he said.
The fear that these immigrants may not speak French privately "over cornflakes" at the breakfast table is not terribly consequential because, he said, the proper goal is to check to what extent French is used in public, not at home.
Taylor also pointed out that the children of immigrants, within a generation or two, become de facto francophone or anglophone citizens.
The state of being in perpetual battle with the federal government is not unique to Quebec either, said Taylor. What he characterized as the "aggression" of the federal government can be seen as an "11-player game" that can be won "if we play our cards right."
However, he said that the separatist segments of the Quebec populace succeed in alienating the province from potential allies in the rest of the country by virtue of their political position.
"There are very important parts of Quebec society that want to get out and they broadcast that message to the rest of the country. You just don't make up alliances by saying, 'Listen, I want to have nothing to do with you, but ... let's get into bed together.' Somehow, in history that does not usually work," said Taylor to a laughing crowd.
The discussion was organized by the Research Group in International Security and the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.