A day after Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard urged Quebecers who have left the province to return, 50 Anglophone university students gathered to discuss their future in the province.

The students were taking part in the inaugural Bishop’s Forum, a week-long conference on civic engagement. Among the speakers were former premier Jean Charest, D’Arcy McGee MNA David Birnbaum and prominent Montreal attorney and political advisor Eric Maldoff, each of whom addressed the Anglophone community’s present and future.

Maldoff was critical of Couillard’s appeal to the Anglo diaspora, saying any words must be accompanied by concrete action.

“Leaders have to speak out and they have to follow their speech with action,” he said. “It’s fine and we welcome nice words from the premier – ‘Don’t leave, come on back, we’ll all have a party here, don’t leave, we’re having so much fun.’ But there’s a fundamental issue here – our schools are declining because we cannot keep the enrollments.”

He pointed to a recent mistake in Statistics Canada data that erroneously showed a boom in the Anglo population as proof that the community is continuing to wither but said the recent announcement of a secretariat for Anglophone affairs is a good step.

“The civil service, again 35 years later is still homogenous, monolithic French Canadians from Quebec,” he said.

Birnbaum also touted the secretariat as a move in the right direction but acknowledged there are still many issues that need resolution before wayward Anglos can be convinced to return.

“I think we tell them and Canadians across the country to understand that the majority language is French, it’s part of the contract,” he said. “If you want to fully participate in this society, be comfortable in that language. Does our society, our government, have to accompany us in mastering that language? You bet.”

Charest dismissed the idea of any kind of utopian linguistic peace, saying “there will always be, because of the nature of our society, healthy tension on the language issue.”

However, he does see the relationship between Anglos and Francos changing on a fundamental and mutually beneficial level.

“What has changed is that the Anglophone community is part of a defence of the French language and culture,” he said. “They believe in the future of Quebec and a society where you speak more than one language because they know it enriches their lives.”