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The Inclusive City: On Language and Culture

Last week, I wrote about the importance of urban design in promoting inclusiveness, and helping people change their circumstances for the better. This concept can be expanded to other characteristics as well, in terms of putting forward a message of cultural – and linguistic inclusion.

On one of my first visits to Portland, I was struck by the fact that MAX Rail announcements are made in both English and Spanish. Don’t believe me? You can hear an example here (at Pioneer Square, a flagship stop and destination downtown)

Portland, unlike cities in the southwest, isn’t known for a large hispanic community, and sure enough, the census data confirms that, with 9.4% of residents of Hispanic or Latino origin. MAX Rail is regional, so if any suburbs contain significantly higher numbers, that may boost the regional share to the state level of 11.4%, but it’s unlikely. Nonetheless, the metro average does appear to be significantly lower than the national share of 16.7%.

The point, however, is not about at what share of the population does a linguistic group command service in its native language. I’m on the accommodation side (yes, I do support official bilingualism in Canada), and see a broader point behind the language issue. It speaks to how welcoming and open to diversity a city (or, at least, its decision makers) is.

Contrast this to the proposed approach of Quebec’s government in waiting. In a province where only one major city – Montreal – is really multingual, nevermind bilingual, it proposes to further restrict the use of English and other languages. Some stats on Montreal – 66% of Montrealais identify their mother tongue as French, 13% as English. Any arguments that other languages need restriction for French to thrive ought to be debunked as mere rhetoric. I covered the long-term threat this approach poses to Quebec’s cities in last week’s post.

Now, to end on a positive note. Edmonton has the fastest growing urban Aboriginal population in Canada, and may soon have the highest in total numbers (though not proportion). Zoe Todd has previously written about the Aboriginal marks on Edmonton’s urban landscape, how other cities like Winnipeg do, and how much more can be done to honour the area’s history.

I thought about this with the unveiling of Aboriginal art panels that will line the city’s South LRT line. It’s a small gesture, perhaps, but one that takes the city another step towards putting forward a more inclusive message. In today’s world, I think that matters a lot.


A photo of the panels, via Don Iveson on Twitter.

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Quebec’s Politics is Holding its Cities Back

Amid the heated debate around cultural issues in Quebec’s election, I’ve been thinking about how it will affect the province and its cities. In today’s Globe and Mail, John Ibbitson put many of my thoughts on the immigration issue into words. Political leaders are fighting the trend that has made so many places throughout the west more dynamic and successful in recent decades.

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The Progress That Has Been Made
I previously wrote about how Quebec politics has shaped me. Quebec remains one of my favourite places, and I think I have some appreciation for it.

The shift in power that has resulted in greater Francophone participation in leadership roles (particularly in business) is the right thing, both from a social justice and human capital perspective. However, many measures that have been enacted, or are proposed, go too far, and prevent the province (or a given city) as a whole from prospering.

Immigration from Abroad
Last week, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the son of immigrants who arrived in Toronto before settling in Calgary, gave a speech in Prince Edward Island. There, he warned about traditional insular culture, and extolled the benefits that an open culture has brought to Calgary.

The point was made in respect to the Atlantic provinces, but it could just as easily be said about Quebec. With its restrictive rules around immigration, Quebec is closing itself off to potential future Naheed Nenshis, who will instead settle in Ontario, British Columbia, or (increasingly) Alberta. Ibbitson points out the lack of success Quebec is having in meeting targets, and keeping many who do arrive. The critique of Quebec’s immigration policy is not meant as a slight against people who do settle there. Rather, the point is that by effectively limiting your pool of immigrants, you’re excluding many who would enrich your community.

Migration from Across Canada
Montreal still attracts migrants from across the country, though it seems its permanent anglophone population is increasingly concentrated in industries where the French language is less central – arts and culture, media, English-language higher education institutions. Yet, it’s not the (permanent) destination that Vancouver, Toronto, or Calgary are. My generation is far more bilingual than previous ones, yet this hasn’t made us more likely to settle in Quebec. I’d strongly consider any opportunity to live and work there, but I’m not sure I can say that for most of my peers. Given the vibrancy and quality of life Montreal in particular offers, this shouldn’t be the case.

Looking Back Through History
It’s worth wondering whether the measures were necessary to allow French to flourish. I subscribe to the founding culture theory in Colin Woodward’s American Nations, which states that subsequent waves of migrants will tend to adapt to the norms already set out, not vice versa.

It’s also worth noting that if you go all the way back, Champlain envisioned New France being a pluralistic society. He actively sought cooperation and integration with the Indigenous populations, to an extent that New France stands out in retrospect compared to most Anglo-led settlements. That spirit has been lost, and Quebec is a less rich place than it should be because of this.

What Does This Mean for Quebec’s Cities?
A snapshot of the present shows good and bad news. Quebec City is home to a handful of large companies, and Montreal edges out Calgary for being home to the second most companies in the FP500 – though less than half compared to Toronto. Both cities can boast thriving arts and culture scenes, and Montreal is a leading center in the video game industry.

Yet, for much of the country, Quebec City is more of a playground. It’s a place you go to have fun, not a place you think about living or doing business.

Montreal, for its successes, is nonetheless on a 40-year (if not longer) trend of seeing its influence wane, as companies and people have exited to head west or south. It lags other big metros in productivity, and my initial rankings of Canadian cities last month saw it come in virtually tied with Ottawa, and noticeably lagging the other two biggest metros (and Calgary).

There’s no reason for this to happen. French is firmly established as the local lingua franca. Non-pure laine go there because of the vibrant culture and opportunities that want to exist. They do not wish to assimilate the former, and they have much to offer in increasing the latter. By all measures of what attracts creative, talented professionals, Montreal should be a magnet city, and it should be a hotbed of entrepreneurship. Provincial leaders are working against this happening. If they envision a pure laine society, they need to be ready to deal with the economic ramifications that likely means.

More to the point, though, there is no reason to believe they need to go in this direction. Has English culture dissipated as London has become more cosmopolitan? Did New York cease to be New York as it embraced being a global hub? Did people stop wearing Smithbilts at Stampede because of migration to Calgary? No, no, and no.

Quebec is home to great cities that could yet be so much more. Citizens and civic leaders would do well to see (im)migration as a benefit, and a way for their cities to further prosper, rather than a threat. The longer they put off doing this, the more likely it is their leading cities will fall further behind.