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Are Anglos still antsy after 100 days of PQ?

MONTREAL - In the leadup to Quebec's provincial election, worries about a Parti Quebecois victory had some English speakers promising they'd pack their bags if the independence-seeking party took power.

Three months after the PQ won a minority government, though, the changes haven't been quite so dramatic.

The PQ recently tabled a new language law and both its contents and the reaction to it were milder than what would have been expected during this fall's heated and emotional election campaign. And while language spats remain a common occurrence, the PQ's stance has softened somewhat since taking office with a minority.

There have been other twists as well.

Montreal now has its first anglophone mayor in a century. The new PQ government has also taken the unusual step of appointing a minister responsible for anglophone relations.

"It’s not relaxing but there’s no imminent massive danger," said Josh Freed, an author and humourist who writes a weekly column for the Montreal Gazette, summing up the current mood amongst anglophones.

Anxiety amongst the city's 206,000 English speakers grew in the leadup to the Parti Quebecois election victory on Sept. 4. The PQ revived old language debates during the campaign with a focus on identity issues and a promise to strengthen the landmark Bill 101 language law in businesses and post-secondary education.

Without a majority, however, Premier Pauline Marois has been hamstrung by her opponents and scaled back some of her more contentious plans.

Jean-Francois Lisee, the PQ minister responsible for the anglophone community, said shortly after the election his government wouldn't threaten the "historic minority that is the English community."

If things have calmed somewhat, language remains a persistent them in political debate.

Two weeks ago, Quebec's language watchdog, the Office Quebecois de la Langue Francaise, released a new study that found that 89 per cent of people working in Quebec use French most of the time.

The report was taken by the Parti Quebecois government as proof strong language legislation is needed, because use of French has dipped several percentage points over the last decade.

Others argued the opposite point: they noted that over a longer period, of about 30 years, the trend showed a marked increase in the use of French in the workplace and they said there's no need for stronger measures.

Tempers have still flared, occasionally, since the election.

A ticket-taker on Montreal's subway allegedly put a passenger in a head lock and hit her after she tried to address the worker in English. That transit authority launched an internal investigation. Earlier, another subway worker had posted a printed sign in a ticket booth that said, roughly translated: "In Quebec, we do things in French."

The ongoing battle over commercial signage continues as well. Several major retailers — including Walmart, Best Buy and Costco — took the Quebec government to court last month over the provincial language watchdog's insistence they modify their commercial brand names to include some French.

In St-Lazare, a suburb of Montreal, council decided to make the community French-only after coming under pressure from the province's language watchdog. The announcement comes as a new language bill tabled last week says municipalities must have a majority-anglophone population to be designated bilingual. Only 37 per cent of St-Lazare speaks English as a first language.

That same bill was far milder than the one promised in the PQ election platform, which spoke of banning non-anglophones from attending English-language CEGEP. The bill still requires those CEGEP colleges to favour the admission of English-speaking students over francophones, to encourage attendance in the French-speaking system.

Such developments have proven too much for some English-speaking Montrealers.

"It's getting to a very sad level of intolerance," said Hugo Shebbeare, a spokesman for an English-language rights group called Office Quebecois de la Langue Anglaise, a play on the government agency that monitors French usage in the province.

The group, which regularly stages protests in Montreal, is concerned about cases of discrimination against Anglos and the erosion of rights for English speakers. Shebbeare said he senses a rising "level of anglophobia."

That's not the case for everyone.

Freed said there's a gap between what makes headlines and the interactions on the street between everyday Montrealers. He points to the success of comedian Sugar Sammy, whose half-English, half-French act sold out a month's worth of shows — before the first performance.

That show reflects the vibrant mix that makes the city unique, he said.

Developments at city hall also point to a new reality. Michael Applebaum became Montreal's first anglophone mayor in a century, despite some criticism his French wasn't good enough.

"I think most people know anglophones and francophones get along," said Freed, whose latest book, He Who Laughs, Lasts, chronicles the events of the past few years.

"It’s a city that works in practice even if it doesn’t work in theory."

The theory itself is complicated, and not always clear.

Even the word "anglophone" is open to interpretation. Does it refer only to English speakers whose parents also spoke the language — like many early Irish and Scottish families who settled in Montreal?

Or does it include the thousands of English-speakers whose parents spoke another language, many of whom arrived during the wave of immigrants following the Second World War?

In Montreal, roughly 13 per cent of the population are first-language English speakers, according to figures released last month by Statistics Canada. In all, about 18 per cent of the population speak English at home, including those with a mother tongue other than English.

One thing is for certain, though: the number of people who speak only English is on the decline.

More than 50 per cent of Montrealers can speak both French and English. Many unilingual anglophones who had been reluctant to learn French left Quebec after the PQ swept to power in 1976 and adopted Bill 101.

In Montreal, the proportion reporting that it spoke only English at home dropped 10.8 per cent to 9.9 per cent between 2006 and 2011.

There are pockets in Montreal's west end where English remains predominant but statistics suggest anglophones have become more integrated. While Montreal's anglophone community may be undergoing a transformation, it remains distinct from elsewhere in Canada, Freed said.

To a certain extent, it has adapted the French lifestyle and culture.

"There’s a work to live not live to work mentality," Freed said. "It’s created a (situation) where everybody is a little bit different."

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