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Readings in Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

The Language Laws of Quebec


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College



The Loi pour promouvoir la langue française au Quebec was issued, in the fall of 1969, by the National Assembly of Quebec under the leadership of the Union Nationale government of Jean-Jacques Bertrand. The Bill attempted to resolve a number of issues: the St-Léonard school situation, where a francophone majority on the local school board had enacted that all children whose mother tongue was not English would have to go to French schools (despite the opposition of most of the parents of Italian-speaking children who sent their children to English schools), the general demand by francophones for a more French Quebec and the recognition of minority rights. The bill, while promoting the teaching of French in English schools and making available to immigrants French classes for a better integration into the Quebec milieu, fell short of the demand of the majority of francophones who would, seemingly, have favoured the elimination of the freedom of choice of parents to send their children to English schools and to restrict access to such schools to the children whose mother tongue was English. Not only did the bill not implement the linguistic policy that most Quebecers seemed to have wished, but, in reality, its substance was to guarantee to all in Quebec the right to choose the language of instruction for their children. The effect of such a clause was to accelerate the rate of integration of the rapidly increasing population of allophones to the anglophone group and, thus, to potentially threaten the position of dominance of French in Quebec, especially in the context of the rapidly diminishing birth rate of francophones in the province. The intense discontent which resulted from the passing of this bill led to the appointment of the Gendron Commission to study the status of the French language in Quebec and, in 1974, to the passing of the Loi sur la langue officielle (Bill 22). The passing of Bill 63 was instrumental in the defeat of the Union Nationale government at the polls in 1970 and in the demise of that party from the political landscape of Quebec.




The Loi sur la langue officielle was adopted by the National Assembly of Quebec in 1974. Bill 22 was passed to solve the problems which arose after the passing of Bill 63. The Liberal government of Robert Bourassa attempted to reconcile the promotion of the French language in Quebec and the protection of  minority rights. The law proclaimed French the official language in Quebec, set up a Régie de la langue française to supervise the application of the bill, mandated that all public institutions had to address the public administration in French, made  French  the official language of contracts, forced corporations to give themselves a French name, and to advertise primarily in French in Quebec, as well as to seek a certificate of francization that could only be obtained when it was demonstrated that the business could function in French and address its employees in French. On the subject of schools, it maintained the freedom of choice for the language of instruction, but subjected the entrance into English schools to those children that a test showed had a knowledge of English. Thus, all those who were anglophones would have access to English school; the bill also guaranteed the existence of an English language sector of education. While the bill required the use of French in a number of instances, as outlined above, it also usually permitted and safeguarded the use of English as well; thus, for example, contracts could also be in English, and even solely in English, if this was the request of both parties to the contract. Bill 22 came sharply under attack from extremists on both sides of the language barrier, some francophones arguing that it did not go far enough in the protection and the promotion of French, while many anglophones felt that it went much too far. The application of a language test to young school children was especially resented by many for a variety of conflicting reasons. Anglophone rejection of the bill was especially widespread. An anglophone petition bearing more than 600,000 names (nearly the equivalent of the entire anglophone community) was drafted in 1976 and large numbers of anglophone abandoned the Liberal party in the elections of 1976, despite the fact that they were traditional supporters of that party, and that the main opponent of the Liberals was the Parti Québécois, a party committed to the separation of the province from Canada. They voted instead for the moribund Union Nationale and contributed, by their voting behaviour, to the election of the Parti Québécois. The discontent generated by bill 22 not only contributed significantly to the defeat of the Liberal government but, as well, to the resignation of Robert Bourassa from the leadership of the Liberal Party.


Bill 101


The passing of Bill 22 under the leadership of the Bourassa government, in 1974, became an important issue during the Quebec elections of November 1976. The bill had come under attack from the anglophone community and from those, in the francophone community, who thought that the bill did not go far enough. Once in power, the new government of the Parti Québécois, led by René Levesque, first issued  a white paper on language, then introduced Bill 1, and later a revised version of it, Bill 101, titled Charte de la langue française. The bill, as it was passed in the summer of 1977, proclaimed French as the official language in Quebec for just about every facet of life in the province: government, judicial system, education, advertising, business, contracts, etc. For example, the bill required that all advertising on billboards be done in French only and that all commercial signs in business establishments be in French alone. All public administrations and businesses had to address their employees in French. All government agencies were directed to use the Official language in their dealings with corporations and other governments in Canada. Government Ministries and Agencies, as well as professional associations in Quebec, were to be known by their French name. The laws of the province were to be enacted in French although an English translation might also be made (and indeed continued to be made after bill 101). English education was to be restricted mostly to those already in the system, their siblings, those temporarily posted in Quebec or whose parents had themselves received an English elementary education in the province. While the bill was very prescriptive in several respects, it showed considerable flexibility in connection to businesses, especially head offices of  international and national corporations centred in Quebec. While francization programmes were instituted for businesses, they were limited to businesses of more than 50 employees.

The debates around bill 101 have only abetted recently. These debates were endless and sometimes lacking in civility. Rarely did those who argued seem to understand, or appreciate, the opponent's point of view. The law has received very bad press outside of Quebec and anglophone Quebecers have been very slow in accepting it. They believed, incorrectly, that the bill was designed essentially to eradicate English from the face of the province. They argued that many of its provisions were unduly harsh, unfair, and in violation of basic human rights. They rejected the view that French was a threatened language and that it required strong legislative protection. They demanded that their language be considered equal and be allowed full visibility. Their perception of the bill was sharpened by sometimes plainly petty application of it by overzealous bureaucrats, called, in some anglophone circles, “the language police”.

By contrast, the bill received widespread support from the francophone community. Most viewed the bill as an essential protection against the increasingly pervasive spread of the dominance of the English language, and culture, in North America, indeed the world. Many remember the days when French was insignificant as a language of achievement and promotion in the province, when discrimination was rampant, and when businesses did not provide fair and adequate services in the French language. What many anglophones viewed as an instrument of oppression was seen by many francophones as the thunderous expression of their right to live in French in one corner of North America. Indeed, it is of significance that the name of the law is Charte [Charter] de la langue française; it conveys for many the same dedicated support one would offer to a Charter of Rights. Thus, both communities  had a deep sense that they were right and that the other side was wrong. Both reacted as endangered minorities fighting for their very existence and appealing to the other side for understanding. Few were able to discuss the subject without becoming emotional.

Over the decades, a number of changes have been effected to the bill. Some were made because provisions of the law have been found to have violated articles of the Constitution Act (1867) or, after 1982, the new Canadian Charter of Rights. Other changes were made willingly by the majority in an attempt to resolve issues as they arose and to show good faith. The most significant of the changes have dealt with the language of legislation (now issued in both English and French), access to English schools (enlarged to guarantee access to English school to all those that have received their education in English in Canada), and with the language of signs (where English is now acceptable provided that French be given priority). Some of these changes were incorporated in a bill issued in 1993 by the Liberal government of Robert Bourassa (Bill 86). Another bill (Bill 42) guaranteed to anglophones health and social services in their language. Some of that has gone a long way to lessen tension on the linguistic front.

As I revise this article, written originally in 1978, and again in 1998, I am struck by the vast changes that have taken place in Quebec as a result of Bill 101. Except for a very few irredendist opponents, the preeminence of French is now unchallenged in the province. The objective of preserving and developing the French culture is one universally shared among the people of Quebec. The French language has become the public language of communication of virtually the entire population of the province. The rate of bilingualism, among anglophones and allophones, indeed among francophones as well, has soared since the 1970's and made it possible for all to participate fully in the public affairs of the province. Business is now largely conducted in French in the province and the French culture flourishes more than at any other time of the history of the province. Francophone quebecers display an openess to others that is probably greater than at any other time of their history. As they felt increasingly secured in their language and culture, they accepted more readily to learn the English language; they do not anymore see it primarily as a threat that must be twarted. Indeed, in recent years, the study of the English language has become compulsory in the French colleges of the province, and, this year, the English language will be studied in all school grades by all the pupils of Quebec from grade 1 in the primary schools of the province all the way to the end of College. In the process of these changes being made, civility, for a time disturbed, has returned in the province. Greater understanding and fraternity now prevails.


[For a discussion of the importance of the French language to Quebec society, read the text on the Three pillars of survival found elsewhere at the site. For background on the rise of the language issue in the 1960's, consult this text.]

© 1998 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College