Monica Heller is professor at the Centre de recherches en éducation franco-ontarienne (CREFO) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, with a cross-appointment with the Department of Anthropology. Her research focuses on the role of language, including bilingualism, in the construction of social difference and social inequality in the post-nationalist, globalizing new economy.

In a recent book, Paths to Postnationalism: A Critical Ethnography of Language and Identity (Oxford University Press, 2011), Professor Heller shows how hegemonic discourses of language, identity, and the nation-state are destabilized under new political and economic conditions. These processes, Dr. Heller argues, put us on the path to post-nationalism. She examines the notion of “francophone Canada” from the 1970s to the present through sociolinguistic practices in workplaces, schools, community associations, NGOs, state agencies, and sites of tourism and performance across francophone North America and Europe.

Dr. Heller sat down with us to discuss language choice as a political strategy, post-nationalism, and her current research project on language and identity in Canada and Europe.


Your initial research focused on the “politics of code-switching and language choice” or how the use of English and French in Ontario and Quebec in hospitals, schools or factories is a political strategy and a strategy for ethnic mobilization and access to resources. Can you explain what you mean by that?

“That started from before I discovered that there were tools for understanding what was going on around us. I grew up in Montreal in the 1960s when opening your mouth was actually a political act: you couldn’t just speak in a way that would not be available for some kind of political interpretation. And that’s what got me interested. So I have always been interested in the everyday politics of language and nation, and also gender and class. At the same time, of course, there is a debate going on about what the state is doing. I was wondering if the state says it is going to happen, they are going to legislate (about language practices), and then there is us talking to each other. So is it true, can the state do this? Does that work? Theoretically there is the notion that there are different actors that are institutionalized, including the state. The private sector, obviously, especially at the time in Quebec, was hugely important, in fact that was what the whole thing was about, really, for francophones: to get access to powerful positions in the private sector. So, the question is: what is the relationship between what different actors do and how things pan out structurally in terms of access to resources; who controls what kind of resources, what kind of linguistic resources, and what kind of resources are necessary for navigating social life in various domains. My interest in what we then called code-switching, is that what I found was opposed to this monolithic bloc – which was assumed – people were actually mixing things up as a way to navigate a set of relations of power and very often to neutralize them in order get stuff done or to be not positioned on one side or the other of the conflict. So I was interested in who was doing that, who was not doing that and why would they do that and would they produce; that we have these strategies that fly totally under the radar in any kind of language policy, except as something that needs to be suppressed as it is not good “language” quote-unquote. The notion of what constitutes good English, good French, standard English, standard French, the right way to speak. You can be bilingual but you have to keep them nicely packaged as separate languages. Mixing languages is generally stigmatized and frowned upon. That is changing now, because this was in the 1960s, but one of the inheritances of the nation-state is the notion that states and nations, and languages and cultures are supposed to be whole, bounded and systematic. And people are messing with that all the time.

Have you seen a change since the 1970s? How relevant are your findings for today’s Canada?

Yes. It has changed in a number of different ways. One thing that has changed drastically for people in Quebec is the shift in economic power from Montréal to Toronto; the development of Quebec as multinational market in which you have to speak French. While at the same time we see this shift to localization. What that has meant is that bilingualism in French and English has increasingly become more important. No longer just for the working class, as it used to be, but for the upwardly mobile, the middle class and for the elite – both anglophone and francophone. The English-speaking elite in Quebec never used to bother speaking French. One of the ways they used to exert power was to impose English on everybody. Those who remained in Quebec are now pretty much all bilingual. Francophones who are bilingual tend to be higher up in class as well as those of the business sector who have to move around in North America. And the role of other languages has also shifted. There is much more a recognition of Indigenous groups than there was at the time. And not just Quebec, but I think in general in North America, there is a recognition of the economic usefulness of linguistic resources and multilingualism in the global marketplace.

You just completed your term as President of the American Anthropological Association (2013-2015; Vice-President from 2011-2013). Do you think that anthropologists have a different approach to these issues than sociologists or political scientists?

That is a very delicate question! Yes and no. Just as I feel that nation-state boundaries are a social construct, I feel the same about discipline boundaries. My training was extremely inter-disciplinary. I came from a department of sociology and anthropology and the point was we are not going to tell you which is anthropology and which sociology, we do not care. And when I was a graduate student I was formally in linguistics, although mainly in anthropology, but at a time when a bunch of students from anthropology, from linguistics, from philosophy, from the language departments – less of sociology, interestingly enough –so it was a very inter-disciplinary moment and we were encouraged to do inter-disciplinary research.

It’s not like sociologists study “us” and anthropologist study the “other”; it’s about who gets what and why.

For example, Erving Goffman, who was president of the American Sociological Association, has been phenomenally influential on both sociologists and anthropologists. Does it matter that he called himself a sociologist? Somewhere it does, but his methodologies and theories have influenced anthropology. Those are important cross-disciplinary discussions; or where Venn-diagram circles overlap. Anthropology’s signature method is ethnography, which tends be less used in sociology, certainly much less used in political science. In anthropology there is more emphasis on qualitative than quantitative methods, more on interpretive than positivist approaches. But quantitative and positivist approaches do exist in anthropology.

So you have always tried to make the link with the economy, how language and identity are linked to the way that people can be successful economically?

The other way around, actually. At the time, in Quebec in the 1970s, the language policy that was coming through started taking the position that the way that things should change is that you take little kids and socialize them and when they grow up they will take that socialization with them into the world. And so if we want French to be the language of work, we need to socialize them in French to grow up and be francophone in the workplace. Of course, that didn’t happen, because the francophones were going: what language do I need to speak to get a job and that was of course English. And to get a really good job I definitely would need to speak English. So, there was a contradiction between what the policies expected and what was actually going on. So you would then have to move the focus from the school to the workplace. Francophones were not doing well in health, education, work – if you take any of those indicators of a “good life” – how do you deal with that? The strategy was not: we are going to redo the economic system but it was to say: francophones need a better place collectively. So the idea was that we are going the change the position of the collective, we are going to do it collectively and we are then going to look at the private sector.

I did my PhD fieldwork in one of the typical private companies that were the target of Bill 101 on the French language, which was a company that was owned by anglophones and that had francophone workers and some bilingual Irish superintendents. So I was trying to look at what was happening, and explain what was happening, and that’s when I realized that what happening was because of the economy. It’s not Bill 101 that makes this happen, it’s because we are in the middle of a major economic shift, of expansion; of expansion of the Canadian economy, of expansion west, the struggle between Montreal and Toronto as financial centers. And so what is happening in Quebec is the opening up of a space in the Quebec market in which at least one generation of francophones can enter. And what was happening to all the anglophones that had been there before was that either they were retiring or were moving west, they were opening up branches in Alberta or their head office moved to Toronto. So there were things that were going on anyway for reasons that had to do with the North American, and frankly the worldwide, economy, at the time. Maybe the legislation made it happen a little faster. But I wanted to argue, and I still argue, that legislation was made possible by economic shifts, not the other way around.

So does that imply that the French language policy only worked because Anglophones were leaving?

It’s more complicated than that. First, you had the development in the post-war period of an emerging French bourgeoisie. But the relationship between the elite and the working class was relatively polarized. The post-war economic boom in Canada and the democratization of education all were factors that allowed for the development of an emergent bourgeoisie. But the elite itself also changed strategy in the 1950s and 60’s. They saw an opportunity – they saw the necessity – of moving into the private sector, which required taking Quebec out of French Canada, to break apart le Canada français and differentiate Quebec from the rest. They used the political tools available to them, given that they were the majority in Quebec, only by abandoning the rest of Francophone Canada and then using the state to get into the door of the private sector. The private sector was expanding in ways that drew Anglophone experts here. Once Toronto wins the struggle from Montreal, if you like, if you are member of the Anglo-financial elite you want to be where the action is, you need to be where the action is. So all these things are happening at the same time.

In your most recent book, Paths to Postnationalism, you describe another shift, away from ultimately this very nationalistic model that allowed Quebec to emancipate?

I would say modernize. Yes, although I think the nation-state model is still with us. Not just here in Canada but around the world. But the issue now is how to handle not just globalization in terms of extension of the networks but also the ways in which to shift from an industrial economy to an economy in which communication and information are key areas that have a huge impact. Linguistic skills become really important when you are engaged in communication and information. English and French are some of the main languages in the world economy. This shift also explains why there is so much interest in Spanish and Mandarin. While at the same time there is also what I think of as a commodification of language – not only as a skill but also as an industry. One of the major expansions in the world in the past 10 years has been in tourism. And one of the things that happened in tourism is the move away from the kind of industrial model. But more and more there is tourism based on cultural heritage, roots tourism. So language and culture have become part of the tourism industry. And with the commodification of language and culture come opportunities to develop sort of niche products. For example, artisanal cheese from various places in New Brunswick. Quebec has had a harder time exploring post-nationalism because it has been so invested in the modern nation state.

What about the Franco-Ontarian University?

So the idea has been since the 1970s that bilingual universities are not healthy spaces for francophones. What francophones need, it is argued, is an autonomous territorial space. Outside of Quebec what francophones needed, they argued, is an autonomous institutional space. So a francophone university was called for many times and now there is renewed call for that. Originally the idea was to foster a francophone elite for the federal government. It also has been attractive for francophones, mainly from Quebec, who are interested in learning English but in a way that does not feel not scary. And then the other group that is increasingly important is precisely francophone immigrants from other parts of the world who feel that their English isn’t up to studying in English and who are looking for a space where they have access to post-secondary education in French.

Can you tell us more about the effect of immigration on the policy of language in Canada and perhaps also how the current refugee crisis in Europe will affect language policies?

Where to begin... I guess the first thing I want to say is that, of course, immigration is not new, we are all from somewhere. So every generation has this kind of (makes startled gesture) “oh my goodness, immigrants!” So we have to separate the discourse from the facts on the ground. If you look at processes and history of mobility around and across the Mediterranean over centuries – what you see is wave after wave after wave, this is just the latest one. So by calling it a refugee crisis we are dehistoricizing a process that has been in place for a very, very, very long time. So in that respect I am kind of nervous accepting the language “the effect of immigration on” in so far as I understand mobility to be normal. Why can’t we take a look at mobility that can be documented as continuous? Look at francophone labor mobility, largely between the Maritimes and the west and north, but it is very clear that that mobility is fundamentally the same as between Francophone Canada and the industrializing United States in the late 19th, early 20th century. And that, in fact, if you look at the history of Francophone Canada, it’s only a history of mobility – that’s all it is. And it is the “no, we are really rooted” part that has required all of the making of the story, all of the narrative, but it had to be in some sense constructed, over and over again, erasing the processes of mobility, which are inherently connected to what Canada has been in the world.

But you feel that, traditionally the term Québécois was an ethnic label, right, wasn’t a national label, wasn’t “I am a citizen of Québec and therefore I am Québécois”...

Traditionally, it was Canadien, Canadien français. Québécois has not always been the term. One of the things that I think is very interesting about the Quiet Revolution, that whole modernization period if you like, is that it actually has become the norm across the country: that Quebec is francophone and there are Québécois who live there. And that the rest of the country is anglophone and that is the end of the story. So I find myself in Quebec talking about stuff that’s going on here in Ontario or New Brunswick, there is always someone at the end who says “there are francophones in Ontario?” I get this all the time. And by the same token, I also get that from anglophones here who apparently are not paying attention on the Toronto subway, where you hear French every day...

We would now like to go into more specifically about research at the University of Toronto. Do you feel there has been a change since the 1990s in terms of priorities placed on issues of French in Canada, bilingualism, and the Quebec national question?

I think for most of us the Quebec national question is not going away but it’s not the question of the hour. I have been studying Francophone nationalism and now post-nationalism in North America forever (laughs). The issue is no longer Quebec or not Quebec, the issue is why the diversity and the diversity of power.

Having said that, we have fallen into a convenient acceptance of a distinction between “(francophone) Québec” and “English Canada”. So we have tended, I think, to carve out these fields as specializations.. This means we don’t have to think of the country as being way more diverse than that, in all kinds of ways, ways that have complicated relations between Francophone Canadians, English Canadians and, for example, Métis in Manitoba, or First Nations. And we don’t have to have a faculty line with somebody who speaks French, we don’t have to worry about that. We can specialize in ways that feel comfortable and legitimate and no one is going to call us out on.

Interestingly, the French government founded at UofT a Center for the Study of France and the Francophone World (at the Munk School, FE/JR), which does not include the francophone world in Canada. We are sitting here, working on not just francophone Canada but the francophone world and there is no communication.

It’s so much easier if we can just say the UoT is an English language university for English Canada and if you are interested in Quebec go to Quebec. In that respect our center is a forum, and a really complicated place. We have had to fight on many occasions for things like a francophone wanting to write a thesis on Francophone Canada in French. UoT is an Anglophone university. But we won that battle and this doctoral student could write her thesis in French. But the point is it took fighting. The point is: it was not obvious to the university. Another example: we have job postings for people who are supposed to do research in French. The notion that job ads should also be posted in French and disseminated in francophone media is always a surprise, every single time.

I am going to be teaching courses on francophone Canada in the anthropology department next winter. That will be the first time that ever happens.

Finally, are there any current research projects you would like to talk about?

I am in the first year of a five-year grant about taking the mobility angle on the question of making the francophone nation. We are looking at the recruitment of people into francophone spaces, such as immigrants or international post-secondary students in Quebec and Manitoba.. The other part of the research is that we are following people who come from spaces that are majority francophone or who are considered legitimate occupiers of the category “francophone” but who are moving around doing different things. So some of them are artists in popular culture who are on a global circuit; some of them are cherry pickers or environmentally-minded citizens of the world with a kind of post-national sensibility. But also people doing the commute between Toronto and Montreal – there are a lot of those. It’s not community-based, old-style ethnography. We try to understand the relationship between mobility and places where you get anchored: who can, who can’t, who wants to and can’t, who doesn’t want to but must, and how that does and does not produce particular ideas about who counts as a francophone.

What is the expected finding?

It’s going to be complicated!!!” (laughter)


This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.