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Language conflict in Québec

By Mathieu Noël, under the supervision of Dominique Marquis, Laboratoire d'histoire et de patrimoine de Montréal, Université du Québec à Montréal

Québec is the only Canadian province in which French is the sole official language. This particularity is the result of a long series of language battles that are still having repercussions today. The roots of Québec's language tensions go all the way back to the Conquest of 1760, when the French colony became a British possession. English-speaking merchants, who formed a minority in New France, soon took control of the economy and would seek to impose their will on the French-speaking majority for the next 200 years. During that time, the language of business, the workplace and social integration would essentially be English. It was not until the rebellious mindset of the Quiet Revolution and, more specifically, the reactions to the 1965 findings of the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission on Bilingualism, particularly concerning the extent of bilingualism in the federal administration, that French-speaking Quebeckers began to clamour for the right to live in French in the various spheres of their society. The situation became potentially explosive, and a conflict over language in the northeast Montreal neighbourhood of Saint Léonard provided the spark that set off the Québec language crisis of the 1970s.

Battle of Saint Léonard

In 1968, 40% of the residents of the Montreal neighbourhood of Saint Léonard were Italian immigrants, most of whom sent their children to English school. This immigrant preference was widespread in Québec, with 90% of new Quebeckers opting to educate their children in English. French-speaking residents of Saint Léonard feared their neighbourhood would become increasingly English. To address this threat, francophone parents, led by lawyer Raymond Lemieux of the Mouvement pour l'intégration scolaire, demanded that French be recognized as the sole language of education, a motion their school board adopted on June 27, 1968. At the start of the new school year, all incoming elementary school pupils had to enrol in French school, which came as a great shock to the Italian community. Italian parents reacted by opening clandestine schools in private homes, which were inadequate and lacked the necessary supplies despite financial assistance from Montreal's English-speaking community. Anglophone residents also wanted to take possession of Aimé Renaud High School for use as an English school. French-speaking residents opposed this plan and occupied the school for 10 days. When the row made the headlines, the Saint Léonard language dispute became news throughout Québec. Demonstrations of support, both French and English, were quickly organized in the streets of Montreal. The language crisis had erupted. The provincial government no longer had any choice; it had to find a solution that would calm people down.

Toward language legislation

In March 1969, 10,000 French-speaking students demonstrated to demand that McGill University be turned into a French-language institution. Later that year, on September 3, some 5,000 French and English demonstrators faced off in the streets of Saint Léonard. It was in this context that the Union Nationale government of Jean-Jacques Bertrand (1916-1973) passed Bill 63. This was Québec's first language law. While claiming to promote French, Bill 63 in fact asserted parents' right to choose the language of instruction of their children. It clearly favoured the demands of the anglophone and allophone communities, further angering French-speaking Quebeckers, who felt they had been betrayed by the government. Huge demonstrations of up to 30,000 people were held in Montreal and Québec City. In the 1970 provincial election, French-speaking voters expressed their dissatisfaction by electing a Liberal government led by Robert Bourassa (1933-1996), who had promised to settle the language question.

In 1974, following the recommendations of the Gendron Commission (1968-1973) set up by the previous government to examine language problems, Bourassa tabled Bill 22. This controversial piece of legislation proposed recognizing French as the official language of Québec but, in practice, it provided a certain amount of latitude to businesses with respect to the language of the workplace, and to parents with respect to the language of instruction, although children did have to demonstrate their knowledge of English to be allowed to attend English school. The Liberal bill didn't satisfy anyone and simply exacerbated the language conflict. The English community felt that its rights were being trampled on, as did the allophone communities, who didn't think their children should have to take an English aptitude test, even though the pass rate was very high. French-speaking Quebeckers viewed the bill as being too indulgent and too easy to circumvent.

Charter of the French Language and its opponents

When the Parti Québécois was elected in 1976, new Premier René Lévesque (1922-1987) assigned Minister for Cultural Development Camille Laurin (1922-1989) the task of finding a solution to the thorny language question. The Charter of the French Language, better known as Bill 101, was passed on August 26, 1977. It stipulated that all signs in Québec must be in French, that all children must attend French school, with the exception of children whose parents had themselves attended English school in Québec, and that French was the language of the workplace and of Québec public administration. The bill was welcomed by Québec nationalists, but sparked anger among anglophones, allophones and even some francophone parents who lost the right to enrol their children in English school. Among the chief opponents to the bill were Claude Ryan (1925-2004) and the Group of 326, made up of influential Québec figures such as Paul Desmarais (born 1927) and Claude Castonguay (born 1922). Alliance Québec, a group that lobbied to have English recognized as the province's second official language, was founded in 1982.

After Bill 101 was passed, the language debate continued in the courts. In a series of cases, various provisions of the legislation were declared unconstitutional and invalidated by the Supreme Court of Canada. The first were those governing the language of public administration -- the Supreme Court again made Québec's laws and courts accessible in English -- and subsequently those concerning unilingual French signs and access to English school. In response to those Supreme Court rulings, in 1988 Québec's Liberal government passed Bill 178, which allowed the posting of signs in other languages in businesses, provided that French was given precedence. There was strong public reaction to the bill in the French-speaking community. In short, while Bill 101 generally calmed feelings of dissatisfaction with the language situation in Québec, tension regarding this issue has still not disappeared.


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