Language Knowledge and Attitudes toward Quebec among Canadian University Students

Article excerpt

This article explores factors that structure attitudes toward Quebec in the rest of Canada (ROC) using a survey conducted in 2004 of college students at English-language universities across the country. Public opinion regarding Quebec in the ROC is important because the country's long-term future may depend on how the ROC can deal with the challenge of Quebec nationalism. Concessions to Quebec that might undermine the appeal of sovereignty to Quebecers will require public support in the ROC, and positive attitudes toward Quebec increase the possibility that such concessions can be made. Conversely, the ability of the ROC to maintain a tough line against separatism in the event of a third referendum may be enhanced by negative attitudes toward Quebec in the ROC.

We expect that attitudes toward Quebec in anglophone Canada will be influenced by the amount and the quality of the contact that anglophone Canadians have with Canada's Francophones. The contact hypothesis holds that "more contact between individuals belonging to antagonistic social groups tends to undermine negative stereotypes and reduce prejudice, thus improving inter-group relations by making people more willing to deal with each other as equals" (Forbes, ix). The contact hypothesis suggests that contact among members of different groups leads to greater communication either through living side-by-side or by having the linguistic ability to communicate, and such contact improves inter-group relations.

Studies have found that anglophone Canadians who live in regions with more French speakers and higher levels of bilingualism evaluate French Canadians more positively than do those Canadians living in regions with fewer French speakers (White and Curtis 1990, Curtis and White 1993). Although it is not clear from these studies whether personal bilingualism or simple proximity explains more positive feelings, meaningful communication is not likely to take place when members of different groups speak different languages and are unable to converse in the language of the other group. Of course, communication occurs even when people do not understand each other, but the level of contact is almost certainly higher as oral communication abilities rise.

The main objective of this article is to examine the influence that knowledge of the French language has on the attitudes of anglophone Canadians toward Quebec. Official bilingualism is often cited as a source of national unity, but prior studies have not compared the political attitudes of those anglophone Canadians who are able to speak and understand French with those who cannot. We review the efforts of the Canadian government to promote bilingualism and test the hypothesis that greater knowledge of French among Anglophones in the rest of Canada leads to more positive attitudes toward Quebec.

Beyond language knowledge, we also consider other factors that influence attitudes toward Quebec in the rest of Canada. We posit that greater contact with French-language popular culture and greater exposure to Canadian television and newspapers will lead to more positive attitudes toward Quebec. In each case, greater contact has the potential to lead to greater understanding and to strengthen the feeling that Quebec is an essential part of Canada. In addition, we analyze regional variations in the attitudes of young Canadians toward Quebec and the impact of political ideology and political party preferences on attitudes toward Quebec. Before testing these relationships, however, we review the various alternative strategies employed by Canada's government when confronting Quebecois nationalism.

Canada's Responses to Quebecois Nationalism

The rest of Canada (ROC) has never been able to offer a consistent response to the threat of Quebec separatism. On one hand, there is Plan A--a policy of accommodating some of Quebec's desires. On the other hand, there is Plan B--a policy of getting tough with Quebec by setting difficult conditions for any eventual attempted secession, and refusing further compromises to keep Quebec in Canada. …