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Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

Bilingualism means to have the ability to use two languages, to speak them, understand them and write them. In Canada, and in Quebec, it means particularly to know English and French. Thus, if one is asked: “Are you bilingual?”, one answers yes only if one speaks English and French. Currently, the Canadian census considers ability to hold a conversation in the other official language as proof of bilingualism. While many Canadians are not bilingual, few would deny that bilingualism, along with multiculturalism, is fundamental to Canada. At the level of principle, it is so universally supported in Canada as to constitute an element of the ethic of Canadianism.

Bilingualism is both a legal requirement and a fact of life in Quebec. The Constitution Act, 1867 outlined safeguards for English and French in the debates in the Legislative Assembly of Quebec, the Records and Journals of the Assembly, as well as the laws themselves; it also guaranteed the ability to use English or French before the Courts of Quebec. By extension, governments in Quebec have made a wide array of publications and services available to individuals in English and in French. The Federal Government of Canada has pursued similar policies since the enactment of the Official Languages’ Act of Canada issued in 1969. However, the need to use English in Quebec does not come so much from legal requirements, as it does from the sheer strength and importance of the language in the North American context. The rest of the continent is dominated by English, and that language is essential for commercial and cultural purposes today. Few have ever denied that in Quebec. Essentially, the weight and recognition of English in Quebec have been so great that many felt that it was the French language that needed to be supported and recognised, for fear that French would fall into oblivion. Hence language laws have been issued to protect and foster French.

There is a view that the language laws have resulted in the erosion of bilingualism, and of the English language in Quebec. Such a view is not founded upon facts. As the data provided below demonstrates, the people of Quebec are now more bilingual than they have ever been before. English continues, along with French, to be mandatory in the schools of the province and has just been introduced as a compulsory subject in the Colleges of the province. French speaking Quebecers visit other parts of the continent in greater numbers than they have ever done before, listen to English television and consume American cultural products in increasing numbers, and interact with their anglophone counterparts in the province more than at any other time of their history. This is why bilingualism is on the rise in Quebec. However, while bilingualism is increasingly important among francophones, to the point where some are worried about the place of English, it is among anglophone Quebecers that bilingualism has made the greatest gains in the past generation.

That the anglophone minority can increasingly master the French language should not surprise us. The place now occupied, and mandated, by French in Quebec requires it if anglophones are not to be excluded from the mainstream of the province and alienated in the process. What is surprising is that the level of bilingualism of anglophone Quebecers was so low before the 1960’s. This can only be attributed to the low esteem attached to learning French, and the irrelevance of that language to success in the province. Such things are no more, and individuals have had to adapt. Those that could not, have left the province, often amid recriminations for which only they were responsible.

In Canada, bilingualism continues to be mostly found among francophones, with the exception of English speaking Quebec and the population of the Ottawa area. This process is normal as one would expect that the minority is more likely to learn the language of the majority, rather than the other way around. However, the percentage of bilingualism among anglophone Canadians, outside of Quebec, remains far too low. Yet, there are good signs for the future as large number of anglophone children now frequent immersion French classes. Aside from learning important rudiments of the French language, when they actually do not become bilingual, they will surely learn an appreciation for French culture and for the people of Quebec.

Table 1

Knowledge of Official languages in Quebec [%]

Census Year

English only

French only

English and French

Neither English nor French

1 951





1 961





1 971





1 981





1 986





1 991





Source of table 1: Brian Harrison and Louise Marmen, Languages in Canada, Catalogue No. 96-313E, 83p. Canada Yearbook, 1991

Table 2

Population with Home Language
Different from their Mother Tongue in Quebec [%]
Census of 1991

English 59,100 9.9%

French 68,400 1.2%

Other 188,200 32.4%

Source: Harrison and Marmen, p. 61

Table 3

Number [000] and rate of bilingual individuals
Selected provinces, 1981 and 1991


1981 bilingual population

Rate of [%] bilingualism

1991 bilingual population

Rate of [%] bilingualism

New Brunswick






2 065,1


2 413





1 136,2


British Columbia





All of Canada

3 682


4 398,7


Source: Harrison and Marmen, p. 36

© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College