MONTREAL — Premier François Legault's assertion that Quebec risks turning into Louisiana if the province doesn't have more control over immigration is based more in pre-election posturing than reality, opposition politicians and experts said this week.
Legault has faced accusations of stoking fears about newcomers after he told delegates at his party's convention on the weekend that the survival of the Quebec nation depended on the federal government granting Quebec more power over who can immigrate to the province.
The premier even warned that Quebec could become like the state of Louisiana — formerly under the control of France — where only a fraction of the population still speaks French.
His comments drew criticism from opposition parties, who accused him of inventing a crisis and suggesting immigrants are a threat.
Legault doubled down on Wednesday, saying the comparison with Louisiana was intended to spark debate. He said statistics suggest fewer people are speaking French at home and at work in Quebec, which he said is proof of its precariousness.
"From the moment there is a decline, we can make a projection," he said. "Will it take 25 years, 50 years, 60 years? But from the moment there is a decline, everyone who wants the next generations to speak French should be concerned."
Two experts on Louisiana history who spoke to The Canadian Press said the situation of French in Quebec can't really be compared to the U.S. state, which had a smaller base of native speakers and where French was banned as a language of instruction.
Louis-Georges Harvey, a professor emeritus of history at Bishop's University in Sherbrooke, Que., said it's a "huge stretch" to compare a province where more than 90 per cent of people speak French to a state where only about two per cent do.
"French, to my knowledge, has no official status in Louisiana at all. It's not taught in the majority of schools," he said in a phone interview. "It's more of a heritage thing than anything else."
He said that by the time Louisiana was absorbed into the United States in the early 19th century, the state no longer had a critical mass of speakers to maintain the language, especially in the absence of government support.
Harvey said he does feel like French is losing ground in Montreal, and he understands the Quebec government's desire to renegotiate to select more immigrants. But invoking Louisiana is a big shortcut, he said, and "more of an electoral issue than anything else." The province is set to go to the polls in October.
Clint Bruce, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Acadian and Transnational Studies at Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia, says there's nothing wrong with Quebec looking at what's happened in other places if it's done with nuance, as opposed to "tapping into a sort of populist fear."
In the case of Louisiana, he said it's clear the number of people who speak French has been in a free fall. From an estimated 500,000 to one million French-speakers 50 years ago, there are now between 100,000 and 200,000.
But he said that happened after years of French being suppressed and deemed a foreign language — the opposite of what Quebec is doing.
Legault's comments, he added, discount that Louisiana has made recent efforts to revive its French heritage through membership in French-speaking international organizations, school language programs, and art and culture.
"Is it particularly helpful to denigrate other societies and then to tap into fears of other cultures?" he asked. "I don't think that helps."
Both Bruce and Harvey point out that Legault's line of thinking is nothing new: examples of Quebec public figures invoking Louisiana as a symbol of French-language decline date back to the 1830s, they say.
The political opposition in Quebec blasted Legault on Tuesday for his comments. Québec solidaire spokesperson Manon Massé accused the premier of using immigrants to distract people from his government's failures on issues such as housing and climate change, while Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade said he lacked empathy toward immigrants who want to reunite with their parents.
Ruba Ghazal, Québec solidaire's language critic, said the province is enriched by the tens of thousands of newcomers who arrive each year, noting that her own family was the product of immigration more than 30 years ago.
"I have news for François Legault: my family and I are not a threat to the survival of Quebec."
Legault said that while Quebec has the right to select about half of the 50,000 immigrants who settle in the province each year, the rest are chosen by the federal government. He said federally selected immigrants — refugees and people in the family reunification stream — are much less likely to speak French when they arrive than those chosen by Quebec, who are mainly economic immigrants.
He said Wednesday that while Quebec isn't asking for control over refugees, Ottawa should transfer to Quebec the power to select immigrants in the family reunification stream. He said even a few thousand immigrants each year who don't speak French makes a difference.
"Seven thousand per year, over 10 years, it's 70,000," he said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared to shut the door on transferring further power to Quebec. "It's certain a country has to have its say on its immigration," he said in Ottawa on Tuesday, adding that jurisdiction is shared with Quebec to allow the province to prioritize francophone immigration.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2022.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press