Bill 101: 30 Years On

Now that the initial, visceral resentment has morphed into indifference and oblivion, maybe someone will suggest erecting a monument along Bay Street to show gratitude for the man who triggered a Marshall Plan to boost Toronto's economy 30 years ago: Camille LAURIN.

A Quebec nationalist, a separatist cabinet minister, and a psychiatrist with an attitude (he dyed his hair jet black, smoked his Buckinghams pinched between the thumb and the index finger of his upturned palm), Laurin prodded as many as 150,000 well off, educated, fully-employed English-speaking Montrealers to choose the 401 over 101 - and to remove themselves, their jobs, their savings and their children from the province rather than face the prospect of having to learn to speak French.

Laurin's language law, the infamous BILL 101, was signed amid cheers and jeers 30 years ago on Aug. 27 and, yes, the earth shook.

Laurin saw Bill 101 as much more than a mere language law. It was a bold attempt at altering social order - itself the outcome of a past military conquest. Thirty years ago, the rich and powerful English-speaking minority was the dominant group; bilingualism was a one-sided burden for francophones, and immigrants were assimilating massively into English.

Laurin's Charter of the French Language proclaimed that every Quebec resident had the right to work, shop, study, be administered, treated and judged in French, everywhere, all the time. The law was a radical departure from established practices at the time. It forced all immigrants' children into the French school system. It said the children of English-speaking Canadians from outside Quebec had to study in French too. It made English illegal on public signs, and said the laws and tribunals would be in French only. These last three provisions were later struck down after lengthy court battles. But Laurin stubbornly stuck to his bearing: to make French the common public language in Quebec, like it or not.

"Clearly, Laurin wanted to strike a big blow, and produce a shock therapy, powerful enough to change mentalities," says Guy Rocher, the prominent Montreal sociologist who still teaches and writes today at 83. He was Laurin's hand-picked deputy minister at the time. "I can still hear him say 'what we're doing now will have long-term repercussions, and effects that will be irreversible.' "

Far-reaching and irreversible repercussions, sure, but which ones? What's clear today is that very few at the time could predict the long-term effects of that Charter of the French Language with any accuracy. For instance:

- The law's aim, in Laurin's words, was to "make Montreal as French as Toronto is English." In fact, Montreal today boasts the highest proportion of people speaking three languages or more in North America.

- The law was immediately attacked as xenophobic, vengeful and racist. Words like "cultural re-engineering" and "akin to ethnic cleansing" were printed. But in fact, it is creating a multicultural melting pot out of the old, homogenous and claustrophobic culture québécoise, all at once diluting it and enriching it beyond recognition.

- In Laurin's mind, Bill 101 was going to generate the momentum that would propel Quebec toward political independence. It has had the opposite effect. By showing that such a radical action was possible within Confederation, it has punched the air out of the separatist movement more than any single initiative coming from Ottawa.

In an interview with Laurin five years after the law was passed, but while the furor it triggered was still in full swing, my first question was: are we cured yet? He was miffed, but answered gamely: "No, not yet. We must wait for new attitudes, new behaviours to develop and set in ..." Laurin couldn't be asked how we're doing today; he passed away in 1999. But new attitudes have taken root, indeed. Bill 101 has spawned a new breed, very rare elsewhere: the bilingual Anglo. Sixty-six per cent of those who stayed in Quebec, or have migrated there since, can speak French. More than half of all those whose mother tongue was neither French nor English can now converse in these two languages; 73 per cent are able to sustain a conversation in French.

"I feel sorry for all those who fled the province, but now we know they didn't have to; they panicked for no good reason," says Julius Grey, a well-known Montreal lawyer - who has fought some chapters of the law in court, and won. According to Grey "in its current form, Bill 101 is an essential law; it has been good for anglophones, for immigrants, for everyone." Then, he bursts out laughing. "If you'd told me 30 years ago that I'd say today that Bill 101 has essentially had only positive effects, I would have been surprised, but that's the case." (Grey gave that interview in precise, flawless French.)

Imposing French as the common public language has eliminated the old linguistic and cultural ghettos in Montreal, he says. "It has been a liberation for everyone. I used to view myself as a Quebec Anglo, but I don't think I'd call myself that today. I don't view myself as a member of any minority now."

That's called linguistic peace. It used to be that The Main, St-Laurent Boulevard, was the divide between French and English-speaking Montreal. It has become a cool strip where everybody congregates. Young Anglos can now go out and speak English (and be loud, as drunk Anglos often tend to be) in French neighbourhoods without fear because it is presumed they could also speak in French. Just recently a squeegee kid on Sherbrooke Street was heard boasting that "I can now beg in three languages." New attitudes, indeed.

English-speakers were the first to feel the heat, but few understood at the time that francophones would be the ones absorbing the full brunt of the law. They're still struggling today to adjust to their new predicament. "The law showed francophones they could indeed undertake radical actions to change their situation," says Senator Joan Fraser, who's been a central figure in Quebec's language dispute, as the chief editorial writer at the Montreal Gazette. "Minorities tend to blame others for their problems. Francophone Quebecers certainly couldn't keep viewing themselves as underdogs, after passing that law."

By forcing businesses to manage their personnel, push papers and serve their customers in French, the law was an afffirmative action drive to help promote francophones to the higher echelons. That worked. At the time, the median income of English-speaking households was between 20 and 30 per cent above the provincial average. That's changed. Today, wealth is spread more evenly among all established cultural groups. Head offices still operate mostly in English, of course, but as often as not, it's a francophone speaking English in the corner office. "If your boss speaks French, it's a good incentive to learn the lingo," says Michel Nadeau, a former vice-president at the Caisse de Dépot.

Thirty years ago, 80 per cent of all immigrants' children registered into an English-language school board. The tables have turned - now, 80 per cent study in French. They have, without much of a fuss, become a new breed too: the children of Bill 101 - a multi-ethnic, French-speaking melting pot. "That's the most striking consequence of the law, and the new cultural mix that has resulted is its greatest achievement," says Maryse Potvin, a specialist of inter-ethnic relations. "There is a rich, unique cultural brew stirring in Montreal at the moment. We didn't see that coming because we underestimated the ability of the various communities to adjust and adapt. But that cultural mixité is now so deeply ingrained into the Montreal street life that the old ethnic and cultural barriers have become obsolete and are crumbling."

Forcing businesses to operate in French in Quebec has spawned a whole new language industry - translation and correction software, terminology banks, linguistic planning and management - in which Quebec has developed a leading expertise, one that globalization has made very valuable almost everywhere. Quebec coined French names for email, junk mail and software that are now widely used. Microsoft, Toyota and Wal-Mart are using Quebec terminology banks. Other bilingual countries - Spain, Belgium - show a keen interest in that expertise.

Thirty years after touching off one of the most severe political storms of the last century, Bill 101 has all but disappeared from headlines. "Language is still a major concern, a touchy topic, but the law itself has all but vanished from the radar," says Gérald Paquette, of the Office de la langue française. So Laurin, the shrink, had been right on that point: we have integrated change.

But the law has also lulled many francophone Quebecers into a sense of false security, says Potvin. "Francophones should snap out of it and get busy learning English, or else ..." Those who profited the most from francization are anglophones and immigrants, she says. Francophones lag way behind in bilingualism, multilingualism. "If they're not careful, they risk being isolated, in a context of globalization."

But old bugaboos die hard. Thirty years ago, bilingualism equalled humiliation - a one-way obligation of francophones to understand what the boss said at the shop. All that has changed, but the resistance has remained. "The paradox today is that French has never been stronger and healthier, but that English has never been more present and necessary at the same time," says Pierre Georgeault, a language specialist. The struggle between French and English in Montreal used to be a classic example of local, capital vs. proletariat class warfare. "But that's gone, over, finished," Georgeault says. "Today, the pressure on French comes, not from inside, but from globalization, new technologies, the Internet."

Laurin's language law has rid generations of Quebec francophones of their past - as a once conquered colony. They're still a feisty minority, still facing an array of tough challenges. And, they're still Canadian.

Maclean's August 13, 2007