It was the law that saved Canada

30 years later: Three writers examine the aftermath of three decades of the Charter of the French Language. Charter allowed francophones to feel confident enough to vote No

Loi 101 - 30e anniversaire - "satisfaction" anglaise

Four years and two Parti Québécois leadership changes ago, Bernard Landry became red-faced and almost choked with rage at hearing a guest panelist tell a PQ meeting that the sovereignty movement had become a victim of its own successes within Canada.
The panelist was Jean-Herman Guay, a political scientist at the Université de Sherbrooke. And one of the successes he mentioned was Bill 101.
The adoption of the French Language Charter by the first PQ government, three years before it held the first sovereignty referendum, is the biggest strategic blunder the sovereignists have ever made.

True, it encouraged English-speaking federalist voters to leave Quebec and discouraged others from moving here. And some of the "children of Bill 101," the immigrant children required to attend French school, have, like native-born classmates, become supporters of sovereignty.
But the greatest political impact of the PQ's language law was the neutralization of the issue that had driven the modern sovereignty movement since its rise in the early 1960s. That was the resentment of French-speaking Quebecers at their economic and social inferiority in a province in which they formed the majority.
By adopting Bill 101 while Quebec was still a province of Canada, and giving French in this province priority over the majority language of the country, the PQ showed that political separation was not necessary to protect and promote French.
The father of Bill 101, Camille Laurin, unwittingly did more harm to the sovereignist cause than any federalist did intentionally. And the most effective thing any federalist did to counter the threat of separation was something that Pierre Trudeau didn't do: Namely, he resisted calls to revive the federal government's power to disallow provincial legislation and use it against Bill 101.
Later, after the sovereignists were unequivocally defeated in their first referendum, Trudeau had the constitutional Charter of Rights imposed on Quebec, cutting back some provisions of Bill 101.
Otherwise, however, federalists have made a national deal sacrificing the interests of the English-speaking minority in Quebec in return for the preservation of national unity.
It's a deal to which most English-speaking Quebecers themselves reluctantly subscribe, reasoning that on the whole, they are still better off living in Quebec as a province of Canada than as a separate country.
Bill 101 has achieved one of Laurin's stated objectives, which was to reduce the English-speaking community to its "proper" size. But in another respect it seems to have failed.
Over the centuries, French in Quebec has survived and adapted to military conquest and occupation, immigration, industrialization, urbanization, television and now video games and the Internet.
And thanks to Bill 101, it now is the dominant language - culturally, socially, politically and even economically - of a province in a predominantly English-speaking country and situated figuratively in the shadow of the Empire State Building less than 600 kilometres to the south.
Yet for all this, and despite what Laurin called his collective "shock treatment," the cultural self-confidence of French-speaking Quebecers remains so fragile that it apparently can be shaken by the sight of an 11-year-old girl on a soccer field wearing a hijab.
The irony is that some of the people who have replaced the once-dominant English minority as the new perceived cultural threat are "children of Bill 101." Their parents were favoured in Quebec's immigrant-selection process precisely because they are francophones or came from countries such as Lebanon or the former French colonies of North Africa, where French is widely spoken. What were supposed to be reinforcements in the battle to preserve the culture of French-speaking Quebecers have become the enemy.
And the increasing acceptance of Bill 101 over the years has legitimized discrimination in favour of the majority and against minorities.

After 30 years, Bill 101 has shown how much can be achieved through legislation - and how little.

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