With the adoption of Bill 101 - the Charter of the French Language - in 1977, the Quebec government demonstrated that it could protect French while the province remained part of Canada. Since then, Quebec sovereignists have argued, the federal government has reduced the impact of the legislation, using the Supreme Court of Canada and the Canadian Charter of Rights. They point to decisions they say undercut two major elements of Bill 101 - unilingual French commercial signs and access to English-language schools.
In the decision on signs in 1988, Quebec invoked the notwithstanding clause to maintain unilingualism despite a Supreme Court ruling. It eventually permitted other languages on signs provided that French remain predominant. As for school access, students educated in English elsewhere in Canada were ultimately allowed to attend Quebec's English language schools. However, these modifications to the original law corresponded to the requirements of both the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms. The sovereignists therefore were unable to persuade enough Quebecers that belonging to Canada was the principal impediment to strengthening legislative measures to protect the French language.
Several analysts - including the Gazette's Don Macpherson (above) - agree that by showing that French could be made secure while Quebec remained in Canada, the language legislation inadvertently helped federalists win referendums.
Yet 30 years after the adoption of Bill 101, there is strong evidence to suggest that the language insecurity of Quebec francophones remains quite high. Although they represent a significant majority in the province, it is in Quebec where francophones are most likely to agree that the French language is threatened in Canada.
A November 2006 survey by Decima Research for the Department of Canadian Heritage revealed that about 63 per cent of Quebec francophones firmly believe the French language is threatened, compared with about 45 per cent in the relatively small francophone communities of Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Alberta.
That Quebec francophones appear so pessimistic is partly attributable to different expectations about the demographic importance of francophones and the condition of the French language in Canada. But another important factor is the constant reminder by opinion leaders about the fragility of the French language in North America. French Quebecers are regularly told that they represent less than two per cent of the continental population. Because this percentage is unlikely to change, continuing to invoke this statistic overshadows the constant growth in the numbers of French speakers in Quebec or elsewhere in Canada.
The latest such reminder of the vulnerability of the French language and culture has come from scholars Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor in the consultation document for what has become an inquiry into Quebec identity. A possible explanation they offer for the opposition of many Quebecers of French Canadian origin to reasonably accommodating certain minority religious practices is that this represents a protest of a four- century-old founding peoples worried about the preservation of their heritage.
Of course, the real question is whether such important levels of insecurity over the future of the French language and culture are warranted 30 years after the adoption of the Charter of the French Language. Bouchard and Taylor seem to think so.
Do Quebec francophones really act like a minority? When it comes to language legislation, it frequently seems as though non-francophones are asked both to empathize with the fragile francophone minority while respecting its majority will when it comes to making French the common language of Quebecers.
Last week, Bouchard told La Presse that the Quebec elite has appropriately paid considerable attention to the rights of minorities but in so doing has paid insufficient attention to the important cultural preoccupations of the francophone majority.
Most Quebec anglophones no doubt think it is the opposite: It is the concerns of the majority that have been the singular preoccupation of decisions about language and culture. Severely under-represented in Quebec decision-making bodies, many anglos believe they have strong reason to be concerned about the future of the English-speaking community and such insecurity is expressed in the November 2006 Decima survey.
Paradoxically, the Bouchard-Taylor commission reinforces the anglophone feeling of neglect by issuing a consultation document that all but ignores anglophone views. They point out that Quebec anglophones are very comfortable with their diversity. This strategy is ill-considered. Indeed, by making such an observation, they might be indirectly encouraging new Quebecers that they are better off using English language institutions.
Thirty years after the adoption of Bill 101, it is important for Quebecers of all backgrounds to work together when it comes to issues of linguistic identity insecurity, immigrant adjustment and reasonable accommodation.
To do otherwise will only reinforce the very insecurities that Bouchard and Taylor hope to address.
Jack Jedwab is executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies.
Insecurity of Quebec francophones still looms large
Polls show French-speakers' concern about the survival of their language