On its 30th anniversary, commentators and politicians lined up to speak in glowing terms about Bill 101 as a landmark, society-altering law that succeeded in securing Quebec's French language and culture, which was precariously floating within a North American ocean of 250 million English-speaking people. Many anglophones have weighed in, saying that as a result of the circumstances, our community has benefited by becoming bilingual. Others have expressed relief that after 30 years, "we have finally achieved social and linguistic peace."
Not to ruin the party, but in many ways, the impact of Bill 101 is no cause for celebration and the anniversary raises several questions:
What cost to Quebec's historic English-speaking community? There is no denying the fact Bill 101 coupled with political uncertainty, has decimated the vitality of Quebec's historic English-speaking community. The departure of hundreds of thousands has severely weakened the infrastructure of the community, its institutions, its political influence, its relevance. The inherent message of the legislation is that the English-speaking community is not as important as the majority. That its language must be hidden from public view was enough symbolism to convince many people that their presence was more welcome elsewhere.
In 1970, there were 250,000 children in English (Protestant) schools in Quebec. With the departure of so many, combined with the legislation's prohibition of all immigrant access to English schools, enrolment in English schools has plunged to 100,000, which has led to closures and the abandonment of dozens of neighbourhood schools in Quebec.
Has the Montreal economy suffered as a result? In the 1970s, Montreal was Canada's most- populous city, the country's head office capital, and the economic hub of our nation. Radio great Ted Tevan called us the City of Champions with Montreal sports teams thriving in their respective leagues. But today, Montreal's economy does not even compete in the same league as Toronto. We lag behind other Canadian cities as well, due in no small measure to one of the largest population displacements in North American history. Montreal has lost hundreds of thousands of people, young educated college and university graduates, taxpayers, property owners, tenants and consumers.
Were the coercive aspects of Bill 101 necessary? The principal objective of Bill 101, ensuring the protection and vitality of the French language in this small corner of North America was positive. But was it necessary for the means to be a zero-sum game? Were restrictive or coercive measures weakening the English community required to enhance the French language? René Lévesque himself was uncomfortable with Camille Laurin's final version of Bill 101, worried that the methods went too far.
To ensure French is universally visible and predominant, was it really necessary to eradicate English words from all commercial signs?
For francophones to play a more dominant role in the Quebec economy, was it really necessary to force businesses to operate exclusively in French or for thousands of anglophones to leave and vacate existing jobs?
Following the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, a new generation of francophones overwhelmingly moved toward engineering and commerce degrees, high-tech programs and MBAs. Bill 101 is not the reason that the École Polytechnique or Hautes Etudes Commerciales of Université de Montreal, or UQÀM, or the École de technologie supérieure have seen an explosive growth over the past 30 years. A new generation of francophone business leadership was naturally emerging and would have taken hold of the Quebec economy without the need for Bill 101's coercion or the flight of English-speaking business leaders and companies.
Would allowing immigrants a choice to go to English schools, perhaps in a French immersion stream, not have accomplished the same as forcing them all into French schools? They would still have become fluent in French, while allowing the English schools to maintain their numbers and vitality.
Would improvements to the teaching of French in schools, more positive incentives for promoting the French language and culture not have done more good than attempting to debase and squeeze the English, or spending millions on language police?
Is Bill 101 still necessary? Camille Laurin himself suggested that eventually, once the patient is healed, once the situation is corrected, that it could be time to relax the restrictive provisions of Bill 101. The pendulum has now swung so far in the opposite direction, and so much of the English-speaking community's critical mass is elsewhere, that any softening of the language law today would have a negligible impact on the majority. But if the Liberal government were to relax the rules somewhat, at least to allow English schools to absorb a meagre percentage of immigrants, it would offer some renewal and indication the community still means something.
We're the only loyal voters the Liberals have left, yet the party hides behind the contention it must not disrupt this sacred "social peace" that now prevails. What no one dares to admit is that this social peace exists only because a once proud and important component of Quebec society has largely either jumped ship or given up the fight.
Robert Libman is a former Equality Party leader and member of the National Assembly, mayor of Côte St. Luc/Hampstead/Montreal West and a Montreal city councillor.
Raining on the parade
Enough of the glowing commentary on Bill 101 - it was devastating to Quebec's English-speaking community