Monday marks the 30th anniversary of the day the Charte de la langue française, commonly known in anglo Quebec parlance as Bill 101, became law in the province. It was at the time, and yet remains, the most contentious piece of Quebec legislation passed in the past half-century.
It was passed in the National Assembly the day before, on Aug. 26, 1977, after a roiling marathon 40-day, 200-hour debate, by a vote of 54 to 32. Its passage was assured by the Parti Québécois majority in the house ; both opposition parties at the time - the Liberals and the late Union Nationale - voted against.
The language act notably declared French Quebec’s only official language, banished English from commercial signs, shut francophones and immigrants out of English public schools, and obliged all but mom-and-pop businesses to operate in French.
"The deep, intense joy we now feel sweeps away with a single stroke all the accumulated frustrations and fatigue of the long battle," said PQ minister Camille Laurin, the bill’s architect and chief enforcer after it was signed into law.
A generation later, the language charter is widely accepted as an intrinsic part of Quebec’s social fabric. Both anglos and francophones of moderate persuasion say the law has engendered an unprecedented era of social peace and easing of language tensions and fostered a cross-cultural communication between English and French Quebecers that has served as an important bridge between the storied "two solitudes" of the bad old days.
But the battle over Bill 101 wasn’t over that day. It would flare up again and again, notably when some of its more outlandish impositions, such as banning English from legislative and judicial proceedings and the blanket ban on English signs, were struck down by federal courts.
As if to underscore the 30th anniversary, another such eruption came this week then Quebec’s Court of Appeal - whose judges are federal appointees - rendered a 2-1 verdict that struck down a language law clause that denied non-anglophones entry to English public schools after starting their education at an English private school. It was judged in violation of the predominant federal Charter of Rights which allows for such access.
The verdict was vigorously denounced across the spectrum of Quebec’s political class. Both opposition parties railed against it and the professional language hawks flocked to the battlements to revile the judgment as an insufferable assault on Quebec’s most sacred law, indeed on the very survival of French in the province, and to impugn one of the judges for being an anglo who had done legal work in the past for the anglo-rights group Alliance Quebec.
The government, whose party originally voted against Bill 101, couldn’t join the chorus fast enough. Two ministers were scrambled to announce the judgment would be appealed to the Supreme Court and that it would seek a suspension of the Appeal Court verdict until the supremes have ruled.
Former premier Bernard Landry, a senior minister in the PQ government that introduced Bill 101, typically called it an aberrant judgment rendered at an unfortunate time, when the looming 30th anniversary put Bill 101 in the spotlight and a controversy is already festering over how far Quebec francophones should bend to accommodate "others" in their midst.
He urged imposition of the notwithstanding clause if the ruling goes against Quebec and hinted darkly that the separatist movement stands to gain from this latest language row. "It will feed our reflections on our collective destiny."
And yet, despite the recurrent outbursts of language hostilities, the bigger story of Bill 101 is the level of acceptance it has reached in its 30 years, the increasingly long stretches of language peace during the period, and its ancillary effects on Quebec - and Canadian - society.
The majority of Quebec anglophones are now functionally bilingual, and bilingual francophones now register the highest average income in the province, previously enjoyed by unilingual anglos. Streaming immigrants into the francophone milieu through schools and the workplace has lent a more cosmopolitan dimension to a francophone society once stiflingly closed to outsiders.
With francophones now predominately in command of the provincial corporate sector, the olden-days bogeyman of the ugly anglo boss ordering his francophone underlings to "speak white" has been dispelled for good.
It has also helped that the pressure on French today comes not so much from the local anglo presence as from the English fact inherent in the globalization trend.
At the same time, while francophone Quebecer’s fears for the future of their language may have subsided, their collective insecurity about their identity as a people in North America has found new focus with the accommodation of cultural and religious minorities.
A poll published by La Presse this week, which was conducted before the Appeal Court ruling and therefore more reflective of what have come to be normal times in Quebec, suggests that most Quebecers, both francophone and non-francophone are comfortable with the linguistic regime imposed by Bill 101 and not much given to language fussing.
Not surprisingly 85 per cent of francophones agreed that the law has had a positive effect. More surprising perhaps is that 15 per cent thought otherwise, or that two thirds of non-francophones also called it a good thing and a roughly equal number said it made no difference to their daily lives. Curiously also, in light of the fierce preoccupation of the province’s political class with the language law, 83 per cent of francophones said it makes no discernable difference in their lives.
Under Bill 101, English and French have achieved a relatively serene modus vivendi that was difficult to predict amid the turmoil surrounding its passage, said Victor Goldbloom, former provincial cabinet minister and federal languages commissioner.
"There was a lot of tension and resentment and the English community lost a lot of its people as a result," he said this week. "But today, not only do I feel less linguistic tension in general, but in particular I’m bowled over by the fluency of English people today in French.
"My sense is that it’s unlikely that we would return to the kind of solitudes and distrust that we had in the past when it wasn’t so easy to cross the dividing line and to share in the life of the French-speaking community."
His take was echoed by PQ MNA Pierre Curzi, the party’s language critic in the National Assembly.
"The greatest benefit is the social peace and linguistic peace it has brought," he said. "Ultimately, it allowed for a clarification of the linguistic order in Quebec and to reassure everyone."
One consequence, unintended by the bill’s authors, is that it ultimately served the federalist cause in Quebec, as its sweeping assertion of French predominance robbed the sovereignist movement of its most compelling argument for separation from "English" Canada.
Camille Laurin acknowledged as much before his death in 1999, as did Curzi this week.
"It certainly deprived the movement of an argument, if not necessarily the real basis of the cause," he said. "But for sure it didn’t help."
Despite the relative linguistic peace of recent years, there will inevitably be episodes of language friction, as demonstrated by this week’s controversy over the Appeal Court judgment. Despite the widespread acceptance of Bill 101 among non-francophones, anglo language hawks tend to be as virulently opposed to Bill 101 as their francophone counterparts favour even tougher measures, as attested by a sampling of AM talk radio this week when the subject was raised.
"A racist law," one caller said. "They just want to drive the English out," said another. Yet another blamed it on "communist" provincial politicians with no respect for the English. "The greatest hindrance to Quebec society," charged another.
And these were the run of the mill.
"The power struggle will never end. New elements will always emerge," said the eminent Quebec sociologist Guy Rocher who assisted in the drafting of Bill 101 in a prophetic interview 20 years ago on the bill’s 10th anniversary.
What also holds true, however, is what former Liberal MNA Reid Scowen famously said at that time : "If you listen to the extremists on each side, you’d have to conclude that at one point there’ll be no more English Quebecers, but everybody will speak English."
In its 30 years, Bill 101 has been for better and for worse. But the worst that many predicted a generation ago hasn’t come about, nor is it ever likely to.
Bill 101 at a glance
Bill 101, the Charte de la langue française proposed by Parti Québécois Minister of Cultural Development Camille Laurin, was passed into law by the National Assembly Aug. 26, 1977. It reaffirmed French as the official language of Quebec and established French as the language of the legislature and courts in the province. Provisions of the charter include :
Workplace : Workers have a right to carry on their activities in French and cannot be discriminated against for not speaking a second language.
Education : Every person eligible for instruction in Quebec has a right to receive that instruction in French. Children attending public schools must do so in French until the post-secondary level. An exception allows for children to attend English-language public schools if either one of the parents received his/her education in English in Canada.
Consumers have a right to be informed and served in French.
Every person has a right to have all government branches, professional corporations, employee associations and businesses in Quebec communicate with him in French.
Signs : Firms’ names must be in French. Exceptions include family names and place names.
French must be markedly predominant on government, public and commercial signs and posters. Among the regulations : Characters used in the text in French must be at least twice as large as those used in the text in another language.
The Office québécois de la langue française : Bill 101 established the OLF to oversee the application of the language law.
To read the full text of Bill 101 online, go to
SOURCE : Office québécois de la langue française