A Brief History of the Language Laws of Quebec

Dec 8, 2011 by

BY CHIP SCHULMAN (“Languages of the World”)

Ever since the British took control of Canada from France in 1763, the governing bodies in Canada have had to deal with a populace that spoke both English and French in large numbers. In the early days of British North America, the British policy towards French language speakers was that of gradual assimilation. Though there were attempts to convert the area to an English speaking majority, they all ultimately failed, and the British were forced to accept bilingualism in the area.

Because of the large populations of English and French speakers, the British North America Act of 1867, part of Canada’s new Constitution, specified that both French and English would be used in government operations; under this new law, English and French were of equal status with respect to the government. All government documents would be produced in both languages and both would be accepted in courts of law. While both languages were equal under the eyes of the law, they were not equal with respect to economic power.

In the following decades, the status of French Canadians in their society was falling quickly. English Canadians and English-speaking immigrants dominated the newer industrial society, and the French Canadians soon found themselves poorer and less powerful than their English-speaking counterparts. During the 1960s, Francophones had a 35% lower income than Anglophones. French Canadians outside of Quebec could find little support to help their socioeconomic status due to their small numbers. The province of Quebec presented a rare opportunity, however, for French Canadians to change their economic fortune, since they constituted a strong majority of the population.

The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s caused a huge transformation in Quebec’s society. The political world became a battle between federalists and separatists as French Canadian nationalism intensified. As the Quiet Revolution strengthened French Canadians’ resolve to improve their own economic plight, it brought new attention to the differences in linguistic status between the French and English languages in Quebec. The will of the French Canadian majority caused the government to form the Office de la Langue Francaise, whose task it was to find ways to rejuvenate the French language in the province. This commission was the first of several actions taken to strengthen the status of the French language in Quebec.

The first legislation introduced to deal with the growing linguistic conflict was Bill 85 in 1968. It was a reaction to the first big controversy of the Quiet Revolution regarding language practices. A Catholic school, which was in an immigrant community, had decided the phase out bilingual coursework, replacing it with French as the primary language of teaching. The parents of the students, many of whom were immigrants and strongly supportive of their children learning in English, protested the move by the school board. Bill 85 proposed that school boards had to teach in both languages if requested by the parents, though French language proficiency was still required of all students. Interestingly, the first legislative action regarding language proposed by the government during this time of French nationalism was one of protecting English language learning in schools. However, militant French nationalist groups soon protested the bill widely, and the bill was withdrawn.

The first bill passed into law regarding language was Bill 63, which gave the Minister of Education of Quebec the responsibility of giving parents the choice of school language for their children. It also gave the Office de la Langue Francaise the task of suggesting ways to make the French language the preferred language of businesses in the area. Bill 63’s effect was minimal, and the French nationalist groups still were making noise regarding their low class status in Quebec’s society.

The government’s response was Bill 22, the Official Language Act, which was passed by the legislature in 1974. The bill made French the only official language of Quebec, a clear effort to shift some of the power from the English-speaking minority to the French-speaking majority. Proficiency in French was now required for any public service job, and any professional such as a doctor or lawyer had to show proficiency in French in order to receive a permit for their work. French was also required on business signs and labels, though English could still be used alongside French. Furthermore, the bill created incentives for businesses to start converting their operations to French, such as government contracts and various benefits. The success of these attempts to increase the status of Francophones in the private workforce was limited, however. Despite the law’s action to strengthen the status of French in Quebec, the nationalists still saw the bill as not going far enough, especially with regards to business operations. Francization of businesses was still based mainly on the goodwill of the companies involved. In addition to the measures taken to increase the economic status of the French speaking workforce, more measures were taken on education in Bill 22. The Office de la Langue Francaise identified one of the reasons for the concentration of power in English speaking Canadians as immigrant assimilation to the English-speaking minority. As a response to this, Bill 22 now required minimum English proficiency as a prerequisite for attending a school with English as the language of instruction. Immigrant communities and English speakers predictably viewed the bill as discriminatory, though their political power was now limited by the more vocal French Canadian nationalists, who succeeding in having an even more radical bill passed in 1977, known as Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language.

According to the new law, only French versions of legal documents were official. All public signs from business had to be exclusively in French. Business were not only incentivized to convert operations to French, but punished if they did not. In addition, the Charter of the French Language once again changed the laws surrounding the language of education in Quebec. Only students who had parents or siblings educated in English could attend English schools. This continued to achieve the main aim of the education policy, which was to increase non-English speaking immigrant assimilation into the French Canadian culture.

As well to trying to increase the numbers of French speakers through education of immigrant children, the new policies resulted in the exodus of Anglophones from Quebec. From 1971-1991, the population of Anglophones in Quebec fell by 124,000. With regards to strengthening the socioeconomic status of French speakers in Quebec, the government’s policies were clearly successful. Income disparity between French and English speakers decreased. The proportion of public sector jobs held by French speakers became proportional to the general population. As a result, there has been little action on language policy since Bill 101, showing that the language policies of the government of Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s have reached a remarkable equilibrium with the Quebecois.

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