Québec Language Policy

For almost two centuries, clerics, writers and journalists have said repeatedly that preserving the French language was the only possible safeguard for the survival of the Québecois nation. However, it was necessary to wait until the 1960s and the QUIET REVOLUTION for Québec to take action and for governments to legislate on the issue. Since 1974, French has been the only official language in this province, although several government services remain accessible in English. Québec has the distinction of being bilingual on constitutional and federal levels, while officially allowing only French in its provincial institutions.

After Jean LESAGE Liberals (1960-1966) who believed that"bien parler, c'est se respecter" (to speak well is to respect yourself), created the OFFICE DE LA LANGUE FRANÇAISE in 1961, actions in support of the quality of the French language increased. The first Franco-Québécois exchange projects were set up in 1965-1966. From 1966 to 1968, the JOHNSON government made every effort for French to be the dominant language in Québec: French became mandatory in labelling food products, and an Immigration Department was created that required newcomers to have a working knowledge of the language. (SeeIMMIGRATION POLICIES).

The first language law drafts appeared under the BERTRAND government (UNION NATIONALE, 1968-1970) following the 1968 education crisis, during which a large number of Italian immigrants living in Saint-Léonard demanded bilingual education. Facing this new danger of assimilation even from within Québec, an initial bill (85) was withdrawn and the Gendron Commission came into being, charged with analyzing the situation of the French language in Québec (1968-1972). In 1969, Bill 63 to promote the French language in Québec, became law. It guaranteed parents the right to choose the language of instruction for their children, with the Ministry of Education simply ensuring that children taught in English acquire "a working knowledge of French". Consequently, allophones were anglicized, and francophones united to form le Front du Québec français, an organization for the preservation and defence of the French language in Québec.

The report of the Gendron Commission, under the Bourassa government (Liberal, 1970-1976), proposed that French become the only official language in Québec, while French and English remain the two national languages. As to the language of education, the decision was left to the government, which, faced with increasing social unrest, drew up Bill 22, The Official Language Act, in 1974, intended to compensate for the shortcomings in Bill 63.

Bill 22 made French the language of provincial government administration, services, and labour, but the enforcement methods remained vague. The Liberals, wishing to preserve bi-ethnicity and BICULTURALISM, left room for ambiguity. The wording stated that French would be the language of education, and anglophones wanting schooling in English had to prove through testing that it was indeed their mother tongue. This caused widespread dissatisfaction: francophones judged the program too moderate; anglophones and allophones felt unjustified in submitting to an examination in order to study in English. The issue of commercial signs in French was also broached, but no clear formal requirement was drawn up. The disfavour of the two camps had direct repercussions on the 1976 elections, which brought the PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS to power for the first time.

The LÉVESQUE government (1976-1985) made the language issue its priority, and enacted Bill 101, the Chartre de la langue française (French Language Charter), in 1977, aimed at making it possible for the Québecois to live and assert themselves in French. This bill followed the publication of a White Paper (Bill 1) the same year, arising from the controversy. Camille LAURIN, the 'father of Bill 101,' made it a very specific law endowing Québec with institutions like the Conseil de la langue française and the Commission de surveillance. Bill 101 stipulates that French must be the language of legislation and the courts, administration, work, and business as well as education. Although a number of Québecois were very pleased with the clarity and resolve of these new measures, there was no general agreement, and the law was considered in part unconstitutional by the federal government. The SUPREME COURT of Canada dealt a hard blow in 1980 by confirming null and void the Québec Superior Court judgement declaring French the language of legislation and the courts. Québec was obliged to amend some additional points, notably the clause in chapter VIII on the language of teaching, which was judged too restrictive (seeBILL 101, CASE). The 'Québec' clause stipulating that immigrants, including those from other Canadian provinces, had to study in French unless there was a 'reciprocal agreement' between Québec and the province of origin, was replaced by the 'Canada' clause allowing children who had attended English school in another province to pursue their studies in English.

In 1983, the Court judged that the mandatory use of French on signs advocated by Bill 101 was contrary to freedom of expression. On return to power, the BOURASSA Liberals voted in Bill 178 that required French signs, except in certain cases (business size, number of employees etc.) where two languages would be allowed on condition that French predominate. The dissatisfaction was palpable: anglophones considered themselves betrayed and francophones feared the return of bilingualism.

The language debates continue in Québec and Canada, arousing passions and controversies. Since the demonstrations by antique dealers in the Eastern Townships in the spring of 2000, the question of signs again came before the Supreme Court where advocates for both sides could barely reach an agreement, and all indications are that the debate could go on for years. Thus, facing protests from the Equality Party, the Parti Québécois (re-elected 1994), considered whether they should toughen up the sign laws. During their national congrès in May 2000, they decided to maintain the status quo pending the convening of the Estates General to define a line of action for the medium and long term. Although the French language is alive and well, managing to keep it strong and dynamic is still considered by many to be daily challenge.