Demography as Tragic Destiny

Demography has been been much in the news lately. This March brought yet another popular book on declining fertility, What To Expect When No One’s Expecting (Encounter Books), by the conservative American journalist, Jonathan Last, largely a breezy update of a 2004 one, Philip Longman’s The Empty Cradle. In Canada, the media are still mining stories from the 2011 census, but widening public interest for over a decade now has also been largely the achievement of just two men: David Foot, a professor at the University of Toronto; and Mark Steyn, a popular right-wing pundit with an international audience. Quebec radical nationalists, on the other hand, have a more obscure hero of their own, a former mathematics professor named Charles Castonguay, who predictably showed up a couple of weeks ago to make one of the presentations heard by the PQ government’s committee hearings on Bill 14. A closer look at all three reveals a great deal about demographic explanation in general.

The Australian-born David Foot has been quite famous since his 1996 Canada-wide bestseller, Boom, Bust and Echo. His articles and numerous TV interviews have drawn lots of attention ever since. The general public had never heard of Foot before B, B. & E., but a small audience had formed a high opinion of him well over a decade earlier, on the basis of an unjustly neglected 1982 monograph, Canada’s Population Outlook. It was published by a Toronto thinktank which closed down in 1984, and is now too obscure for Google, and makes only a brief and uninformative appearance on Google Chrome. But in it, Foot, who applied mathematical analysis to several alternative scenarios for changing birth, death, and immigration rates, also showed the surprising convergence of their predicted consequences, and pretty much got everything right. At the time it appeared, both the U. S. and Canada had been giving far more popular attention to Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, a 1968 bestseller that remained in print for many years, and which Ehrlich, a Stanford biologist and environmentalist, was still defending in this century, despite getting as many things wrong as Foot got right. Foot is not infallible; no demographers are. But while he has a flair for entertaining exposition, he is fundamentally cautious, and always ready to recognize quickly unexpected shifts in the latest data available.

No one would ever describe Mark Steyn as being cautious. He is himself a bit of a demographic patchwork. Born in Canada of affluent English and Irish parents,, he received an upper-class formal education in England, but never took a university degree. He had a youthful career as a disc jockey, becoming an authority on American popular music; his first book was Broadway Babies Say Goodnight. A decade ago, he was writing mainly for Conrad Black’s Canadian and English newspapers, but now, living in New Hampshire but with continued world travelling, he writes mostly as an American political pundit. He is a unique combination of witty cosmopolitan sophisticate, cheerily vulgar reactionary, and Spenglerian prophet of doom. Doom fills his columns and his two books, America Alone (2006), and After America (2011), partly from awaiting the reckoning expected from current American and and European levels of debt. But his favourite theme is what he sees as a low birth rate death spiral of Western societies, and a probably irreversible takeover by future generations of high birth rate Muslim immigrants.

Steyn’s fearlessness and often very funny irreverence have won him an army of right-wing fans throughout the English-speaking world, and he is as cordially detested, especially by Canadian leftists. While mostly sputtering incoherently in response to his best political writing, they can mount a real case against him as an amateur demographer. His numbers and percentages have often been shown to be wrong, or at least undermined by more recent data, and he is fond of rhetorical overstatement all the time. Even many of his friendly readers now think that applies to some of his gloomy demographic projections. He is very good at punching large holes in the punditry and policies of the left, but he is too inflexibly assured about the fixed assumptions that he applies to an area of social analysis that is more like long-range weather forecasting than geometry. Steyn’s unabashedly partisan journalism made him welcome even at the White House in the Bush era, but it reduces his impact even on the right now, including in his dark demographic projections, because he lacks the academic credentials, and perhaps the real expertise, to be entirely persuasive in this area, save to his most worshipful and uncritical readers. Many of his claims are credible, but they simply lack authority.

Charles Castonguay, a former professor of mathematics at the University of Ottawa now in his seventies, is the opposite of Steyn; he has some academic authority, but makes political inferences that are quite incredible. While his 1970 McGill doctoral thesis on the philosophy of mathematics was later published, he produced no more work in that area, but instead spent decade after decade publishing articles and testifying before federal and provincial government committees on his one and only demographic preoccupation: the continuing decline of French throughout Canada (and lately, in ‘the key Montreal area’) due to the much greater assimilating power and associated ‘language shift’ to English among both francophones and immigrants.

From these defensible observation he derives his insistence that only an essentially unlimited ‘territorial’ protection of French, only partially achieved since the 1970s by Bill 101, which he sees as inadequately complete even at its present level, can ‘save’ French in the future. His most scholarly defence of this position appeared in Policy Options years ago (vol. 20, 1998: ‘French is on the ropes; why won’t Ottawa admit it?’). That article used many statistical tables drawing on the 1996 federal census, but he had been making it for two decades earlier, and has never stopped making it since, including in his March 20 presentation to the Bill 14 committee.

Castonguay, born in Ottawa and sent by his parents to French Catholic primary school, only studied English from the secondary level. Nonetheless he always describes himself as a native English speaker when appearing before government committees. The Gazette’s Phil Authier even headed his story on Castonguay. ‘Bilingual status is detrimental, anglo argues’, also describing him in the article as ‘an anglophone from Gatineau’. ‘Anglophone’, perhaps, but calling Castonguay an ‘anglo’ was rather like describing Audrey Hepburn as a Belgian.

Authier also wrote that, in a document presented to the committee, Castonguay ‘[fired] a scud missile at those defending bilingual status’. His numerical tables, one assumes, were what Authier saw as the scud. His comments to the committee and in an interview he gave Authier were more like anti-personnel grenades. Any bilingual status in Montreal was ‘perverted’, the fruit of ‘Trudeauist ideology’, producing ‘nests’ of anglophones on the West Island and in West Quebec.’. His message to the nests: ‘Don’t pretend that you’re being martyrized…don’t try and make the francophones feel rotten…because they want to be able to speak French.’
Buried near the end of the story, Authier finally added: ‘Castonguay appeared as a member of the hardline language group Syndicalistes progressistes pour un Que’bec libre (SPQ-libre)’, but Castonguay is probably summarizing views widely held among many nationalist Quebeckers, who would also endorse expressions that Castonguay uses over and over again: ‘French is on the ropes, not English’, ‘Get the facts straight’, the menace of English ‘door to door’ or ‘wall to wall’.

Castonguay may be right that federalist professional demographers have downplayed fading use of French by francophones in Canada overall, most likely because they are well aware that free countries, and even most dictatorships, can do little about the factors that make such things happen. He is so devoted to his ‘language transfer’ statistics that he seems to have refused to understand that, contrary to Francis Bacon, knowledge is not always power. In the case of Quebec itself, for example, he never seems to recognize that English-speaking communities here have their own histories and purposes that have nothing to do with unwillingness to ‘respect’ French politically and socially, but simply with trying to survive in their own ancient ‘nests’; McGill and Concordia, for example.

His strange logic suggests that Quebec can not achieve what he desires even with separation, even with an attempt to become a totalitarian state, and that, meanwhile, any level of state discrimination it can apply is defensible to serve a utopian purpose, even a purpose not grasped with much enthusiasm by countless real French Canadians. Quebec birth rates are now at 1.74, still below replacement, but above the overall Canadian figure, and not that low in current world terms. And Castonguay scarcely seemed to consider that his kind of Quebec unilingualism is itself a large disincentive to immigrants, even many potential francophone immigrants. He is not really calling for the ‘respect’ of Quebec anglos for French, which they have been demonstrating for decades, but for their elimination. Foot is the demographer of cool analysis; Steyn compels even his sceptical readers to think. But Castonguay appears more as a classic kind of ‘intellectual’; that is, someone who tries to turn a personal neurosis into a national catastrophe.