Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Is Montreal a bilingual city: not the right question to ask mayoral candidates

A few mayoral candidates have been asked by CJAD's Tommy Schnurmacher recently the following: "Is Montreal a bilingual city?"

Their pat answer is something like: "No, Montreal is a French city. But bilingualism is a great benefit and makes Montreal an international city."

The candidates are able to skate around the issue because the question is not precise. Take the term "French city." Montreal could be called a Quebec city, or a Canadian city, or a North American city. But it is not a "French city," France having long ago abandoned its former colony.

Pedantic? A touch. But we're going for clarity here. So, a more accurate version of Tommy's question is: "Is Montreal a French-speaking city."

But even this formulation could be interpreted as a question about demographics, as in: "Is the population of Montreal mostly French speaking." You can check the census data for the answer. It is not a political question. So this cannot be what Tommy meant to ask.

In politics, the question usually should begin with an "ought" not an "is." An ought is about what we want to have happen. An is relates to facts about the universe that can be Googled.

What Tommy meant to ask, then, was: "Ought the municipal government of Montreal provide bilingual services to residents, without them having to ask for it."

The question, asked in this way, leaves no room for misinterpretation and requires a clear yes or no. It's not about demographics but about public policy, which is the business would-be municipal leaders are in.

This is the question Tommy (and voters) should be asking of the mayoral candidates.

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