In Quebec there is no law more hotly discussed, debated, or resented than Bill 101.
These days Bill 101 is seen one of two ways. People who love the Bill see it as necessary way to preserve Quebec’s Francophone identity in the face of cultural and linguistic assimilation attempts. Others see it as a means for Quebec’s French-speaking majority to treat the province’s other linguistic minorities like garbage.
The issue is a lot more complex than that and in order to properly explain, we need to go back in time.
The year was 1760 when Great Britain took over New France. British leaders replaced the French ones and did their best to impose their will on the French-speaking majority. This oppression went on for the next two hundred years during which there were Francophone rebellions to assert their rights but they were all quashed by the British. One of the few but significant concessions the British made to North American Francophones was allowing them to keep their Catholic faith despite the Crown’s dislike of the Papacy.
Everything began to change in the 1960s due in part to the Quiet Revolution in which every aspect of Quebec society from political patronage to the economy to social, cultural, and religious life came under scrutiny with the widespread recognition that change was needed. The increasing demand of Quebec Francophones for protections of their language and culture eventually led to the establishment of the the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, a federal commission that took place from 1963 to 1971.
The Royal Commission revealed that the number of French-speaking people in Quebec was not reflected in their actual political and economic representation. In 1965 Francophones made an average of thirty-five percent less than Anglophones and there were concerns about the lack of Francophone representation in federal institutions.
The actual inequalities had a few effects.
First was the belief that the status of the French language in Canada was fragile, the second was the rise of Quebec nationalism which argues that the only way Quebec can preserve its language and culture is to separate from an English-speaking majority Canada.
Bill 101 was brought in to preserve the French language in Quebec, but it was not the first law to try and do so. In 1969 Bill 63, the Act to Promote the French Language in Quebec was enacted, which required that kids receiving an English education get a working knowledge of French and that the government facilitate immigrants learning French when they arrive in Quebec. The law was disliked by Quebec Francophones because it didn’t go far enough; it was eventually replaced by Bill 22 in 1974.
Bill 22 was enacted by the provincial Liberal government under Robert Bourassa. It established French as Quebec’s official language and required that all immigrants arriving in Quebec learn French.
In 1976 the Parti Québecois under René Levesque took power and a year later, Bill 101 was enacted.
Bill 101 aka the Charte de la langue française made French Quebec’s official language and enacted a lot of the rules still in force today. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on the three sets of rules people seem to resent the most: the language of education, the language of commerce, and that of government services.
The law requires that kindergarten, elementary, and secondary school instruction be in French. There are exceptions to this and they work as follows:
- If the father, mother (or both) is a Canadian citizen and received a major part of their elementary school instruction in English in Canada, one parent can request their child receive English instruction
- If the father, mother (or both) as well as the child’s siblings are Canadian citizen and received or are receiving a major part of their elementary or secondary education in Canada in English, the child can go to English school
The law robs parents of the freedom of choice where their children’s education is concerned. It also allows the child to become a more employable adult, as French is the dominant language in Quebec and knowing more than one language improves job prospects overall.
Bill 101 also established French as the language of business. All product labels in Quebec are required to be drafted in French, as are all catalogues, brochures, and commercial directories. The law also requires that standardized contracts be in French, though both parties can agree to draft the contract in another language as well.
Perhaps the most hotly disputed aspect of Bill 101’s commerce rules is regarding signage laws. The law demands that all commercial signage, posters, and advertising be in French. Another language is permitted on commercial signage but only if “French is markedly predominant”.
Over the years these rules have often been used to persecute ethnic and religious businesses such as in 2001 when the Office québécois de la langue française – the office charged with making sure French is the language of commerce, work, and communication in Quebec – went after L. Berson & Fils, a now defunct Jewish funeral monument company in Montreal. Fortunately public outrage forced the government to back down.
In cases where the government proceeds with enforcing Bill 101, penalties range from fines of six hundred dollars and up to being disqualified from holding certain government jobs for a period of five years.
The most dangerous aspect of the law is regarding that of civil administration, specifically with regards to health and social services. Since they are government owned and operated under Canada’s public health care system, hospitals, CLSCs and clinics fall under the same French language requirements.
Though most people working in public health know to provide health and social services in the language to best serve the patient to the best of their abilities, some service providers have been accused of using language laws to refuse people necessary help. Hopital de Verdun, for example, has been accused on many occasions of denying English speakers health services because they cannot speak French.
Though it should go without saying, where a person’s health and safety are concerned, there should be no language barrier.
It should be noted that Bill 101 has been successfully challenged several times in the courts for violating the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights. To prevent further legal challenges, Quebec used the Notwithstanding Clause, a clause in our constitution that allows provinces to keep legislation in place notwithstanding the Charter. Since the court challenges, the law has been tweaked to make it more constitutionally compatible.
Bill 101 is like toothpaste. When applied correctly and in the right place it is a necessary evil to make sure that Quebec society functions despite what comes out of people’s mouths. When used incorrectly and in the wrong place it can be a pain in the ass. It’s up to us to keep challenging the government when they apply the Bill where it doesn’t belong.