Canada has garnered a reputation as an open and multiculturalist country, accommodating to all religions and nations of origin. Yet in its largest province, one demographic is largely repressed: English-speakers, otherwise known as anglophones.
Since the 1970s, Quebec has passed legislation after legislation suppressing the English language in favor of French. At the cornerstone of this movement is the Charter of the French Language, or Bill 101. Passed in 1977, this law declared French as the official language of Quebec, setting the stage for a francophone revolution over the following couple decades.
Indeed, the passage of the bill has led to a restructuring of societal standards and an upheaval in the daily lives of every resident. However, with Bill 101 recently celebrating its 40th anniversary, many Québécois are calling for its removal, claiming that it is no longer relevant in the modern world and is only hampering the growth of the province. Quebec is undergoing a pivotal provincial election this year, and as such, it might be time to reconsider the role that Bill 101 should play in Quebec's society.
What is Bill 101?
Bill 101 declared French as the sole official language of the province and establishes the fundamental language rights that belong to French. Specifically, this means that French is the language used in government and the courts, that business and the workplace must be conducted in French, and that, with a few exceptions, children must be educated in French.
The latter two have been particularly controversial and the topic of extensive debate within the province. These rules are explicitly stated and stringently enforced.
All firms with 50 or more employees must conduct all business and workday operations in French. Furthermore, French is the declared language of instruction from kindergarten to secondary school: all children must attend a school taught primarily in French, with the only exception being that at least one of the child's parents received instruction from an English school somewhere in Canada. In particular, all immigrant children must attend French school, even if they are from an English-speaking country like the United States.
The intent of the bill has always been to protect the French language within the province. Although English and French enjoy equal legal status in Canada, English has held higher social status throughout the country. By the 1960s, English had supplanted French even within Quebec. Even though French-speakers vastly outnumbered English-speakers in the province, anglophones had better economic opportunities and held higher positions within businesses and the government. Fear spread throughout the francophone community that the French language would go extinct. Then in the pivotal 1976 Quebec general election, the Parti Québécois, led by René Levesque, came to power for the first time. The Parti Québécois was (and still is) the principal advocate of a sovereign and independent Quebec, placing the utmost importance on the protection of the province's francophone roots. In August the following year, Bill 101 was passed. This led to an immediate mass exodus of anglophones from the province and a complete makeover of the socioeconomic composition.
In many ways, Bill 101 can be regarded as a keystone of the Parti Québécois’s legacy in the province, and the party has fought to protect it. Since its passage in 1977, the bill has been amended several times. Changes strengthening the bill have only occurred under the leadership of the Parti Québécois, and never has the party deliberately weakened it.
This relationship between Bill 101 and the Parti Québécois now plays a pivotal role in the ongoing election cycle in Quebec. In August this year, Quebec will undergo a general election to elect a new Premier and form a new government. There are three candidates with a realistic opportunity to become the Premier: incumbent Philippe Couillard of the Liberal Party, Jean-François Lisée of the Parti Québécois, and current leader François Legault of the young Coalition Avenir Québec, a political party founded only in 2011.
Current trends indicate that this year's election may mark the end of the Parti Québécois. The party is far behind in recent polls, a far cry from the dominant popularity it once held in the province. Furthermore, key members of the Bloc have also left the party, choosing either to switch to the CAQ or to run as Independents. Many attribute the party’s declines to its particularly controversial platform, as Lisée is advocating for a sovereign and independent Quebec as well as the implementation of a "Bill 202", a stronger and stricter version of Bill 101. Yet, the popularity of such ideals is no longer what is was forty years ago. Generational changes in the voting population indicate that, as the world becomes more globalized and interconnected, and as Quebec becomes more and more culturally diverse, the fears of an English-dominated province are slowly fading away.
After the passage of Bill 101, Quebec suffered a drastic economic downturn. The labor force shrank, as anglophones and allophones (those who speak neither English nor French) departed for other provinces. Jobs also left Quebec, as several companies moved their major operations from Quebec to neighboring Ontario, especially to Toronto. This movement helped Toronto surpass Montreal as the economic hub of Canada.
As a result of the local economic recession, unemployed throughout the province rose sharply. While unemployment was at 8.7% in 1976, it would only stabilize at below 10% at the turn of the 21st century, when Canada’s economy was undergoing holistic improvements. This had especially lasting effects on immigrant workers.
In 2017, the unemployment rate of immigrants dipped below 10% for the first time since 1977. Still, this demographic has a significantly higher unemployment rate than native francophones, despite having on average attained higher levers of education. About 40% of migrants moving into Quebec have little or no knowledge of French, hampering their abilities to find a job in the French work environment mandated by Bill 101. Additionally, tests have found that, when comparing equally-qualified job applicants, employers preferred candidates whose last names were traditionally Québécois over those who appeared to be immigrants. This indicates that immigrants still face significant institutional challenges within Quebec.
The 2001 census indicated that the francophone population represented 81% of the total population of Quebec. In this regard, the law has clearly succeeded in maintaining the prominence of the language, even forty years later. However, the status of the language remains ambivalent among the community, as the anglophone and francophone communities are still as divided as ever. Recent polls still indicate that young anglophones still want to exit Quebec and that they hold tense relationships with their francophone counterparts. Furthermore, they feel that attempts to make the province more bilingual have been repeatedly shut down. For instance, in Montreal, the city in Quebec with the highest anglophone and allophone (people who speak neither English nor French) population, store clerks were greeting customers with "Bonjour, hi". However, last November a law was passed prohibiting this practice, forcing clerks to return to only using "Bonjour".
The Bill's most noticeable social impact has been the reforming of Quebec's education system. In 1971, around 250,000 children attended English schools throughout the province. Nowadays, fewer than half that number attend English schools. In contrast, in 1971 only about 15% of anglophone children attended French schools. Today, that figure is up to 85%. This has been especially damaging to allophone immigrant children, who have little choice but to attend French schools. While doing so allows them to rapidly integrate themselves into Québécois culture and society, it also delays their education in English until CÉGEP, a mandatory two-year ternary step in Quebec's school system that acts effectively as pre-university education. This has resulted in reduced opportunities outside of Quebec for those students.
In response to these trends, school systems across Quebec have taken steps to accommodate non-francophone students in French schools. Studies indicate that Quebec ranks among the top provinces in terms of support services for second language students. The performance of non-native students in French-speaking schools is only slightly below that of mother tongue francophone students, and adaptations have been made to encourage pluralism in schools and to bring together francophone and minority students. This conclusion is supported by data, which finds that many anglophone and allophone children who have the choice to attend English schools opt to attend French schools anyway, and that over 80% of allophone children who graduate from French secondary schools decide to pursue French higher education.
Forty years after its implementation, the debate over the role of Bill 101 continues. Certainly, it plays a vital role in preserving the identity of Quebec. Politicians across all parties believe in the value of preserving Quebec's French heritage. The courts agree, ruling late last year that Bill 101 is still necessary to protect the French language. But at the same time, Quebec is becoming increasingly multicultural. Growing immigration has created a rich and diverse Canada, and Quebec is no exception. Today, Montreal stands as the most bilingual city in Canada, with the top three cities all being in Quebec.
The essential question remains the same for Quebec. Should it fight to preserve its identity, or move forward with a new one?