By Ruby Irene Pratka
Local Journalism Initiative
Concordia University historian Patrick Donovan is delving into the oft-instrumentalized trope that the English-speaking community of Quebec is “the best treated minority in the world.” He presented his findings at a virtual Lunch and Learn event hosted by the Quebec English-speaking Communities Research Network (QUESCREN) on Jan. 20.
“The phrase ‘best treated minority in the world’ has typically been used to describe Quebec's English-speaking population, and…it's a phrase that raises lots of questions – when did it start being used? How did its use change over the years? How did people back up this claim and how did they counter this claim? And finally, are English-speaking Quebecers really the world's best treated minority?” Donovan said.
For Donovan, his research on the “genealogy” of the controversial phrase is a way of understanding “how the past shapes the present, which is not always in a linear or clear way.”
“In the case of English-speaking Quebec, we're talking about a past where there was a hegemonic English-speaking ruling class from the 1760s to the mid-1800s whose legacy did not disappear overnight. There was a desire to anglicize the French [speakers] in Canada, and although the overwhelming majority of English speakers in Quebec today are not descendants of this ruling class…these things leave traces,” said Donovan. “Some people only see the traces to the exclusion of everything else; others try to deny the traces. But one of the legacies of these traces we have to reckon with is this best-treated minority phrase. So let’s look at it.”
After analyzing more than 160 years’ worth of back issues of the Montreal Gazette, the Sherbrooke Record and other English- and French-language periodicals, Donovan found that the phrase is a relatively recent invention, not appearing at all in the Gazette archives before 1959.
Before 1920, Donovan found, the phrase and phrases like it – ‘most favoured minority,’ ‘most spoiled minority’ and so on– were most often used in French-language media to refer to the English-speaking Protestant minority, at a time when francophone communities in Ontario and Manitoba were struggling to access education in their own language. “The interesting thing about this period…is that there’s no pushback against the use of this phrase [from] anglophones,” says Donovan. “In fact, a lot of times, they reinforced it.”
Between 1920 and 1959 – in the years leading up to the emergence of the modern Quebec sovereignty movement – it mainly referred to English speakers or “Anglo-Protestants.” It was also occasionally used by sovereigntists to describe French-Canadians, arguing that Francophone Quebecers were “too pampered” to take the step of voting for sovereignty.
It was only in the 1970s, in light of the Quiet Revolution and the growth of a “very strong Francophone-led [secular] state,” that some francophone politicians began publicly using the phrase to advocate for restrictions on English language rights. Pushback against the phrase from the English-speaking community, Donovan found, picked up in the 1980s.
“Why has the phrase which had been embraced by English speakers themselves in the past suddenly become so unbearable? For one, it was becoming more difficult to make the case that English speakers were better treated than francophones outside Quebec, particularly with regard to primary and secondary schools, which have long been the backbone of the argument,” said Donovan, citing the restrictions on English-language education brought in by Bill 101 as other provinces facilitated access to French-language education.
By 2000, the term fell out of favour as linguistic tensions eased. However, Donovan notes, linguistic tensions “seem to be coming back, unfortunately, and the tension inducing phrase has also come back.” In his October 2021 throne speech, as debate over Bill 96 raged, Premier François Legault stated, “No minority in Canada is better served than English-speaking Quebecers,” leading to lengthy debate in the National Assembly.
Donovan declined to rule on the phrase’s veracity, calling it “hyperbolic” and “objectively difficult to measure” and observing that it “implied a lack of agency” on the part of the minority being “treated.”
“At its best, the phrase's aim is to encourage people outside Quebec to show [fairness] toward minorities, and I think that's mostly how it was used before. At its worst, it's used by the majority to shut down grievances by a minority by depicting it as spoiled and privileged,” Donovan observed. “If you're spoiled, you're getting more than you deserve, and you're expected to be quiet and not raise too many alarms.”
Donovan plans to publish a 15- to 20-page working paper on the subject later this year as part of the QUESCREN Working Paper Series.