Bill 101 or the Charter of the French language is often depicted as an excessive, anti-liberal, freedom-destroying law with questionable aims. Anglos don't or simply refuse to understand the need for this law and its purpose. Even when you point out its achievements like increasing bilingualism in Quebec or ending old social inequalities between francophones and anglophones, they refuse to acknowledge that anything good has ever come from what they consider to be an odious law which has “victimized” them.
I suppose it shouldn’t be that surprising, the anglophone media doesn’t exactly present a balanced view of this laws. All we ever really heard about is incidents where the application of this law seems frivolous and those incidents usually get pretty distorted. For example, asking an Italian restaurant to include French translations of the Italian headings on its menu becomes “QUEBEC WANTS TO BAN THE WORD PASTA!” and so forth. Good luck having an intelligent conversation about Bill 101 with someone who has been raised on a steady diet of that crap.
There are even some francophone Quebecers who seem to be completely clueless as to why we even have this law. They’re not afraid of English. They’ve spoken to anglophones before and they weren’t assimilated so what’s the point of this law. Why indeed… Let’s start with a common question:
“French in Quebec had survived for 400 years before Bill 101 so why do you need it now?”
Well, the short answer is this: After the Conquest, French in North America survived as the language of an ethnic group, a group that refused to assimilate. But power and money, unsurprisingly, ended up firmly in the hands of the English conqueror. To get anywhere in our society you basically had to assimilate or serve the interests of the British rulers in some way. Bill 101 transformed French from the language of an ethnic group who happened to be the majority in Quebec to the language of our society, the common language of Quebecers. It has made it possible in Quebec to do pretty much whatever you want to do in life and to succeed at the highest levels in French. This had not existed here since the Conquest.
To quote historian Charles-Philippe Courtois:
“After 1760, Canadiens not only lost their commercial empire in the West but most of their access to executive positions, to the detriment of individual socio-economic success and the capacity to shape their destiny as a people. Before 1760, Canadiens had access to most of the most important business, military, and political positions in the colony, as illustrated (toward the end of the regime) by Philippe de Rigaud Vaudreuil (1698-1778), the last governor general of New France, a Canadien born and raised in Canada.
After the Conquest, not only did the population lose some of their elites, who moved on to pursue their careers elsewhere in the French Empire, but those who remained in New France lost their handle on government, administration, big business, and the military. The Canadien gentry entered into decline. Gradually, the colony’s elites were overwhelmingly composed of the WASP minority, power residing in the hands of London and of men nominated by Britain. Later that overarching power shifted to Ottawa, an almost entirely English-speaking government before the 1970s, and one that from Quebec’s perspective remains today the expression of an English-Canadian majority, even if at times with strong Quebec contingents.”
Quebecers, especially after the failure of the Patriote rebellion in 1837-38, came to accept their inferior status to the English and a certain stability set in. Mansions in Westmount and slums in St-Henri, that was the accepted norm. This continued until the 1960s. A new consciousness arose in the sixties. It was fueled by external factors like the end of European empires and the decolonization of the Third World. And it was also fueled by internal factors like the growing rejection of the old order, i.e. the influence of Catholic Church in Quebec society and the puppet leaders who served the interests of wealthy Anglos (both foreign and domestic).
The declining birthrate among francophones combined with the wave of immigrants which came to Quebec after WWII overwhelmingly joining the ranks of the anglophone community was threatening to change the demographic balance in Montreal. If nothing was done francophones would become a minority in Montreal. This had happened before in the 19th century but with a low birthrate there would be no coming back without integrating more immigrants. That wasn't going to happen in a city dominated by English. There was a growing realization that things needed to change.
An impressive number of studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s documented the relatively low usage of French and the inferior economic status francophones in the workplace.
Some fact about Quebec before Bill 101:
- 83% of the directors and managers in Quebec were anglophones;
- Francophones earned on average 35% less than anglophones;
- Francophone came 12th in the income distribution by ethnicity, just before the Italians and Native people;
- Even with the same level of education, francophones earned less than anglophones of any background;
- Unilingual anglophones earned more than bilingual francophones;
How to make this situation change? Well, we used the most powerful tool we had; the state. The government of Quebec is the only government in North America which is controlled by francophones and we began to use it to redefine our society. The government of Quebec of the 1960s and 1970s implemented some very important reforms in the areas of economy, education and language. One of these reforms was the Charter of the French Language. This law transformed Quebec society.
Bill 101 was adopted on August 26, 1977. The preamble to the Charter sets out the Quebec legislator's principles of action. It indicates the National Assembly's resolve "to make of French the language of Government and the Law, as well as the normal and everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business." It recognizes the valuable contribution of the ethnic minorities to the development of Québec and the right of the Amerindians and the Inuit of Québec to develop their language and culture of origin. The preamble also specifies that the National Assembly intends to pursue the Charter's objective with all due respect for the Quebec English-speaking community's institutions.
The Charter proclaims that French is the official language of Québec. It then enumerates a series of "fundamental language rights", such as the rights of workers to carry on their activities in French, and of consumers of goods and services to be informed and served in French. French is recognized as the language of the legislature and the courts in Québec, although judgments and proceedings may be in English, if the parties so agree. The French language becomes the language of communications of the government, its departments and affiliated agencies as well as of government-owned firms and the professional corporations. The administration of municipal, school and health bodies may be carried out in both French and another language if these bodies serve a clientele where more than half speak a language other than French. As for commerce and business, French becomes the mandatory, but not the exclusive, language for labels, signs and commercial advertising (with many exceptions).
The Charter of the French language states that French is the mandatory language of instruction in kindergarten, elementary and secondary school classes. This principle holds for both schools run by school boards entirely financed by the Québec state and for private school that receive some of their funding from the government.
The Charter nevertheless makes an exception to this principle and gives several categories of pupils the right to instruction in English in public or private schools financed by the state under the same conditions as for French-language schools. Canadian Children whose parents received their elementary instruction in English in Canada may receive instruction in English. The Charter protects some acquired rights. Children who, at the coming into force of the law in 1977, had received their instruction in Québec or in Canada in English, retained the right to continue their studies in English.
The law recognized that the Aboriginal peoples of Québec could provide instruction in an Amerindian language. The languages of instruction of the Cree and Kativik School Boards are Cree and Inuktitut respectively, although English and French are taught as second languages.
The anglophone community has had its own social institutions - hospitals, school boards, colleges and universities - since well before Bill 101 came into force. It manages and improves them as it sees fit and they offer Quebec's English-speaking population a varied and full range of services in English. The Charter of the French language did not intend to question either the continuity of these institutions or the principle of the freedom to provide services in the client's language. What changed was the provision that no Quebecer would be wronged by the lack of service in French and that the public acts of governmental and parastatal institutions be carried out in French, exclusively or concurrently with another language.
The results of these reforms were dramatic. The labor market disadvantages of francophones during the 1960s and 1970s were largely redressed by the 1980s. Francophones made significant advances in the workplace in terms of earnings as well as in other dimensions, such as representation in highly-paid professions and managerial positions and ownership of enterprises. In addition, the use of French in the workplace dramatically increased and the historic link between francophone workers and low income disappeared. Also, proficiency in French among the immigrant communities of Quebec and even among Quebec anglophones rose dramatically after Bill 101 and has remained so.
It’s hard to argue that there were no inequalities in the past and it’s hard to deny that Bill 101 went a long way in redressing these inequalities so the usual counter argument is to say that if francophones were economically disadvantaged in the past, it was their own fault. You see, saying that it was our fault is meant to delegitimize our solution to the problem, since it affects Anglos who, according to this narrative, were merely innocent bystanders.
“The reason francophones were poor and completely absent from the higher economic levels is that their priests told them to avoid others and to stay on the land.”
This is, in fact, a favourite anglophone fairy tale. We weren’t poor because of economic exclusion and cultural domination, we were poor because we sheepishly listened to our priests who told us to stay on our farms… Yet when the rural areas in Quebec were overpopulated, approximately 900,000 francophones of Quebec left despite the objections of the clergy. They were attracted by the rapid industrialization in New England and the economic opportunities that it brought. If those opportunities had been available to them closer to home they surely would have taken them.
By 1890, an estimated 50 to 150 families of British descent living in the "Golden Square Mile" and Westmount, owned more than a third of Canada's wealth. Montreal was Canada's largest city and its Anglo elite dominated the country. Francophones were not part of the club. Capital was not available to them and positions beyond simple worker required English. That's enough to keep anyone unwilling to assimilate down. The francophone elite remained mostly made up of doctors, lawyers, and priests..."essential services" for the bodies and souls of cheap labor.
Contrary to popular mythology in English Canada, it was the economic shift from Montreal to Toronto, accelerated by the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway, that made a francophone renaissance in Montreal possible. Had Montreal remained the economic center of Canada, all of the people who flocked to Toronto would have come here instead making Quebec's metropolis an English city and Quebec culture would have remained a museum piece frozen in time.
But Toronto took over and many Montreal Anglos followed the jobs to Toronto. This enabled us to take control of our society and of our economy. With the creation of institutions like la Société générale de financement and La Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec capital was suddenly made available to francophone entrepreneurs. Private companies like Cascades, Bombardier, Lavalin, Provigo, Quebecor, etc., benefited from these policies. In 1960 Francophones only controlled 47% of Quebec's economy. By 2000 they controlled 67%. That's a substantial achievement by any standard.
By the 1980s Quebec society harvested the benefits of the economic, educational and language policies adopted during the two previous decades. The rise of new generations of highly trained people transformed all walks of life. Francophones also gained a much higher profile. In the large Canadian and American corporations operating in Québec, where they had long been confined to the lower ranks, they rapidly rose to prominent positions. Private enterprises owned by Francophones became much more numerous and powerful; some of them, such as Bombardier and Quebecor, achieved the status of multinational corporations.
Bill 101 was a big part of the changes which took us from being an underprivileged ethnic group to a nation capable of achieving big things like creating the world's largest hydroelectric producer, Hydro-Quebec, and a nation that can accept and integrate immigrants. We are far more in control of our destiny today than at any time since the conquest and independence is the logical next step. But Quebec Anglos can't see anything positive in the changes we brought about, changes that benefited the majority of Quebecers. They even deny that there was anything wrong with the old order. If we were poor back then, it was our own fault. If a unilingual Anglo struggles in today's Quebec, it's our fault. We are always to blame...
Our crime is and has always been our insistence on existing in our own right and not assimilating. You see, in the great Canadian multicultural mosaic there is an unwritten law which says that the Anglo-Saxon culture will always come first. They will ban your language from their schools or they will forcibly take your kids away and stick them in deadly residential schools if you don't comply. This is why wanting Quebec's culture and language to come first in Quebec is endlessly denounced as "ethnic nationalism" by Canadians. It's not that it is more "ethnic" in any way, it is simply that it is the wrong ethnic group.