One of the great international social and cultural phenomena in world history since the last century has been the ever-continuous growth and influence of the English language. Although it has fewer native speakers than Mandarin Chinese and Spanish (see table below), it is nonetheless the most used language, being as it is the leading tongue in most of the world’s media, correspondence, and business – not to mention the internet, of course. In much the same way that Latin was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire, so English has much the same status in today’s world. This is why it came as such a shock in Canada, exactly forty years ago, when a provincial government passed the first of a series of laws aimed at restricting the use of English in everyday life.
Since its Quiet Revolution (or Révolution Tranquille) of the 1960s, all of Canada’s provinces had undergone considerable social change, but in Quebec, where the overwhelming majority of the population speak French as a first language, there had also occurred a strong growth (or was it revival?) of a sense of difference or proto-national consciousness. The federal government in Ottawa had begun a policy of official bilingualism in 1969, aimed at protecting the rights and aspirations of French-speakers, but in Quebec there was a feeling that more spectacular things needed to be done to protect its own francophone linguistic and cultural difference. There thus began a trend towards separatism – with some figures resorting to terrorism, as a group of ultra-radicals calling themselves the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) committed eight acts of murder between 1963 and 1970. This terrorist campaign culminated spectacularly in the 1970 October Crisis, as the FLQ abducted Quebec’s trade minister Pierre Laporte and a British diplomat called James Cross. The former was strangled, the latter released, and shortly after this global-headline-grabbing incident the group soon broke up. Then, in the 1970s separatists apparently committed to winning independence for Quebec through peaceful means formed a political party, the Parti québécois (PQ), which in 1976 won power in Quebec’s provincial elections. Their leader was the ex-broadcast journalist René Lévesque.
Taking full advantage of its huge electoral mandate (the PQ had won 71 out of 110 seats in Quebec City’s Assemblée Nationale), the new government got to work on what they considered to be the best way of protecting the rights of the province’s French-speaking majority. The result was what the PQ administration called the Charter of the French Language (la Charte de la Langue Française), but which is better known as Act 101 or Bill 101 (la Loi 101), and which . Under the terms of this new law, the use of English would henceforth be banned from shop fronts, posters, and billboards. All state-funded school instruction would be through the medium of French, not English – unless one of the pupil’s parents had been educated in English at a Quebec primary school. Anyone who flouted the new law’s provisions would receive a warning before being served a $7,000 fine – which considerably annoyed not just English-speakers in Quebec (and elsewhere) but also newly arrived immigrants from places like China, Italy and Greece (whose second language was more likely to be English than French). Staff members from the Quebec Office of the French Language (Office Québécois de la Langue Française or OQLF) whose job it was to enforce Bill 101’s clauses have been dubbed the “Language Police” by critics in Canada and beyond. Some immigrants, who felt that English instruction would be much more useful to their children, went so far as to have underground English classes, including one businessman who spoke to the makers of a 1986 documentary on the English language:
‘I don’t mind having to Francicize my business. Here we do everything in French… But when it comes to my family, I’m going to fight like a tiger.’
Whatever one thinks of these events, the combination of the growth of separatism and a separate consciousness among Quebec’s inhabitants and their representatives, and the resultant resentment in the rest of Canada over Bill 101 and Quebec’s greater devolved powers compared to other Canadian provinces (for example, the Quebec provincial government, uniquely in the country, has full control over immigration policy), combined to have a revolutionary impact on the whole country. As Quebec increasingly went in a different direction to other Canadian provinces, politics in the whole country became increasingly polarized. The moderate right-wing Progressive Conservative Party would in the 1990s be eclipsed by the more hard-line Reform Party, which accused the Liberal and PC-dominated establishment in Ontario of being too accommodating to the separatists in Montreal and Quebec City.
If Lévesque, his ministers and their successors had hoped that their policies would raise Quebec’s population’s appetite for independence, they were to receive two enormous reverses. A referendum on the question in 1980 saw the pro-independence side lose by 60% to 40%, while a second one held fifteen years later saw them lose by a much tighter margin (50.5% to 49.5%) – after which Quebec’s then premier, Jacques Parizeau, notoriously blamed his defeat on what he called “money and the ethnic vote”.
22 years after the last independence vote, and forty years after Bill 101 was enacted, the party that sought to speak up for Quebec’s separateness in Canada has fallen in popularity over the years: at the last provincial election in 2014 their strength in the Assemblée Nationale fell from 54 to 30 seats. At the risk of jumping to conclusions, it could well be that most of the province’s population reckon that enough has been done to safeguard their separateness within the Canadian confederation. It’s the same feeling that may well have been echoed in Scotland in the UK’s most recent general election, when the SNP’s representation in Westminster dropped from 56 seats to 35. In what has been called an increasingly nationalistic age, with Brexit and Donald Trump offering a telling backdrop, there is maybe still hope for the viability of multi-national nation-states.
As for Bill 101 itself, whatever its impact on Quebec, the English language, supposedly the target of the separatists’ linguistic aims, is continuing to grow in influence and importance throughout the world. Whatever their concerns about Quebec’s francophone culture and heritage, even some of Bill 101’s most ardent defenders must surely have sweated about the public-relations impact of the Bill’s draconian clauses, given the Orwellian echoes in jibes like “Language Police” (and a term like Loi 101 must have brought Room 101 to mind, too). And what was the biggest irony behind Bill 101? The PQ’s then leader – and Quebec’s then premier – René Lévesque was one of his government’s least militant members on the question of linguistic policy…!