Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Language Policy and Ethnic Tensions in Quebec and Latvia

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Language Policy and Ethnic Tensions in Quebec and Latvia

Article excerpt


Concern for the French language in Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s and the Latvian language in the then Soviet Union in the late 1980s and in the new Latvian state in the 1990s were ignited by some of the same demographic and assimilative forces in the two societies. Both Quebec and Latvia had lost their independence to larger powers. The birth rate and population declined abruptly in the two subnations. Schools in English (in Quebec) and Russian (in Latvia) attracted most immigrants. The elites were disproportionately drawn from outside the majority ethnic groups.

To counter these trends, language policies were drafted, restricting access to English and Russian languages in schools, respectively, on commercial signs and in legislative bodies, and municipal, public and para-public administration. Looking for a model to change these conditions, Latvia based a significant part of its language law on the Quebec Charter of the French Language. The reasons for this were twofold. First were the similarities in the language situation. French in Quebec as well as Latvian in the former Soviet Union were "regional majority languages ... languages of populations who, though a majority in their historic territory (where they may nevertheless be experiencing some form of assimilation) are minorities at the national level" (Maurais quoted in Druviete 2002: 1). (1) The second, more pragmatic reason was that there were very few examples of linguistic legislation available behind the Iron Curtain. The French text of Bill 22 and Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, were available in Latvia in 1988 and translated into Latvian. The goal of language policy was similar in Quebec and Latvia. The major aim of the two language policies was to prevent language shift and to change the hierarchy in public life (Druviete 2002, 2003).

Quebecois and Latvians worry about being minorities in their own territories. Particularly since the 1960s, the French in Quebec have held antithetical feelings of fear and confidence--the fear of being weakened or of slowly disappearing as a distinct people and the confidence that it can perform as well or better on its own. To these feelings is added the feeling of rejection. These contradictory feelings have shaped language policy in Quebec (Dion 1992: 78). Latvians also fear minoritization in their own country. Deportation has come to constitute a central feature of Latvian identity. The feeling of being victims is also a part of Latvian national identity (Broks, Tabuns and Tabuna 2001).

There are, however, major differences between the two societies, including the proportion of the titular or regional group, citizenship status, and the ways the language laws were implemented. Although we will discuss the repercussion of these differences in molding language policy and ethnic tensions, the major emphasis of this paper is on the similar factors leading to the adoption of a language policy favoring the "regional territorial language," an analysis of the language laws, and the ways the language laws became vulnerable to outside constitutional and political bodies.

The first section traces the factors that led to the adoption of the Charter of the French Language in Quebec in 1977 and the Latvian State Language Law (LLL) in 1999. The second part of the article examines the similarities and differences between the 1977 version of Bill 101 and the 1999 LLL. The third section analyzes tensions related to the sign laws and access to English and Russian language schools. Finally, we will evaluate the ability of the laws to reverse the future of French in Quebec and the Latvian language in Latvia.

Threatened Language Status in Quebec and Latvia

Conditions Leading to the Adoption of Bill 22 and Bill 101 in Quebec

The late 1960s saw an upsurge of Quebecois nationalism and an attempt to maintain and extend the use of the French language as a symbol of the new nationalism (McWhinney 1979). …

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