The precariousness of the French fact in Canada and North America
The main reason Québec governments have taken steps to protect the French language in Québec is their observation that the French language, a minority language in North America and Canada, is too precarious to develop without state support. Although francophones are the majority in Québec, their language's power of attraction is weak. English, the continent's usual and predominant language, the language of both commerce and culture, vies constantly with French to be the language of business and communications. The French fact in North America is precarious for several reasons: (1) the Conquest of 1760, which put an end to French colonization in North America; (2) the progressive assimilation of francophones outside Québec and the inadequacy of language rights; and (3) the delicate balance of the French fact in Québec because of the lower birthrate and the contribution that immigration continues to make to Québec's demography.
Unforeseen consequences of the Conquest of 1760
It was decisive for the future of French in North America and probably for the French language in general when the colony of New France fell into the hands of the English in 1760. The final ceding of New France to the British crown in 1763 put an end to a century and a half of French settlement in North America. Sixty thousand French colonists suddenly found themselves a conquered people, subject to a foreign language, religion and legal system. After the Seven Years' War, it could have been expected that New France would suffer the same fate as the former Dutch and Swedish colonies on the American east coast. As historian Michel Brunet noted:
The evolution of this new British colony, it was felt, would be similar to that of New York, first settled by Dutch colonists, and of New Jersey, which had been founded by Swedes. In less than a century, these two distinctive collectivities had melted away. The British conquerors of the St. Lawrence Valley sincerely believed that a similar fate awaited the Canadiens.
England quickly exercised its rights as a conqueror. British subjects came by the thousands to settle in the new colony called the Province of Quebec. In 1791, London divided the colony in two, reserving one part, Upper Canada, for some 10 000 of its colonists, and the other, Lower Canada, for the 150 000 Canadiens living in the St. Lawrence Valley. Although they were granted a legislative assembly with limited powers, the Canadiens were still in a position of economic and social inferiority. The predictions of foreign observers on their chances for cultural survival were not very optimistic. Benjamin Franklin predicted:
In less than a half century, because of the mass of Englishmen who are settling around and among them, they are destined to mix with and become part of our people in both language and mores…
Alexis de Tocqueville, the acclaimed author of Democracy in America, visited Lower Canada in 1831. He wrote:
But it is easy to see that the French are a conquered people. The rich classes belong for the most part to the English race. While French is spoken almost universally, most newspapers, signs and even French merchants' signs are in English. Commercial enterprises are nearly all in (English) hands.
In 1837-1838, ideas about democracy and a republican government stirred Lower Canada. The Patriote party of Louis-Joseph Papineau headed a protest movement against the hold London had on its colony's affairs. London's refusal to bring in a truly constitutional and responsible government gave rise to an insurrection in the colony that was quickly put down. London concluded from this popular uprising that it should force the assimilation of Canadiens of French extraction by uniting the two colonies. In 1840, it decreed this union and imposed equality of representation for the former Upper Canada and the former Lower Canada in the single parliament, even though the Canadiens, who numbered 650 000, were the majority, Upper Canada's population being 450 000. Because of massive immigration by colonists from the British Isles, the population of British extraction grew larger than that of the French Canadians. When the Dominion of Canada was created in 1867, French Canadians comprised only one-third of the population of the new quasi federation.
By obtaining a legislative assembly, a province and local autonomy in 1867, French Canadians recovered the little collective freedom they had had before 1840. A minority condemned to assimilation, they thought they had acceded to the status of a founding people, equal as of right to English Canada. With the confederative pact, this minority people hoped to preserve their language, their culture and their civil institutions.
Thanks to a birthrate unparalleled in the West, the population of French extraction managed to increase in the 19th century. History belied Franklin's and de Tocqueville's pessimistic predictions. Between 1881 and 1961, the population of French origin maintained its weight - about 30% - in the country's total population, despite the creation and addition of new provinces and the colonization of new territories by immigrants from around the world.
The proportion was maintained, but at a price. The federal government pursued a policy of massive immigration at the turn of the century in order to develop the country's economy and settle its vast territories. Between 1896 and 1914, Canada welcomed more than three million British, American and Eastern European immigrants. A large number settled in Western Canada. Many poor and unschooled French Canadians may have wanted to emigrate there, too. But with little encouragement to locate in the West, about 450 000 crossed south over the Canadian-American border between 1890 and 1920.
The progressive assimilation of francophones outside Québec and deficiencies in language rights
French seems destined for marginal status outside Québec. It took a long time for francophone minorities to get recognition for their situation as imperilled minorities and to get the rather lukewarm support of governments. Having long been deprived of public services in French, they had to integrate into milieus where French met with indifference, even hostility.
Figures on the rapid assimilation of these minorities speak for themselves. In 1931, 7.2% of the population of Canada outside Québec had French as a mother-tongue. This proportion dropped to less than 5.0% in 1991. If you look at language of use rather than mother-tongue, the proportion of francophones outside Québec declined from 4.4% to 3.2% between 1971 and 1991. Rapid assimilation seems to be running unabated in some provinces. The proportion of Ontarians for whom French is the usual language fell from 4.6% to 3.2% between 1971 and 1991. In Manitoba, it slipped from 4.0% to 2.4% in the same period, and in Saskatchewan, from 1.7% to 0.7%. Only the Acadians of New Brunswick seem to be resisting assimilation, their share in the province's population having stabilized at about 31%.
This assimilation reveals the inadequacy of the legal and constitutional provisions introduced to protect francophone minorities since 1867. Manitoba declared itself a unilingual English province in 1890, even though its constituent law had prescribed bilingualism for legislation and the courts and guaranteed Franco-Catholic schools provincial government support. In 1896, the Manitoba government had to concede to its francophone minority the right to instruction in French; this was withdrawn in 1916, however, and French disappeared from Manitoba schools. In 1897, Ontario made English the only language of the justice system. In 1913, it severely reduced the teaching of French in Catholic confessional schools (Regulation 17), to the great displeasure of Franco-Ontarians who saw this as the sign of a deliberate policy of assimilation.
Manitoba and Ontario have since restored some of their minorities' rights, but only several decades after the introduction of linguistic unification measures. It may have been too late. As William Tetley, former Liberal minister in the Bourassa government and McGill University law professor, observed in 1982, the Constitution of Canada and the courts have done little to protect the language and culture of francophone minorities:
It is clear that the Canadian Constitution has done very little to promote or protect Canada's two great languages which should have been - and should be today - a great national asset. The British North America Act, 1867, failed to protect the French language and culture which were violated in such judgements as Ottawa's Separate Schools Trustees v. MacKell or such legislative action as Manitoba's Official Language Act, 1890, and Regulation 17 of Ontario. The Constitution as interpreted by the courts should have provided a high standard of conduct, a spirit of natural justice, and a tradition of fair play. Instead, there was often harshness and no apparent legal recourse. It was only in the 1960's that political action in Quebec, beginning with the Quiet Revolution, brought about change.
The realization that francophone minorities in Canada are slowly but perhaps inexorably being assimilated has contributed to making the need to support the French language in Québec more acute.
How the French language has fared in Québec
Threatened, losing momentum outside Québec, the French language seems to have had more stability in Québec. The percentage of Quebecers with French as their mother-tongue remained constant from 1951 to 1991, decreasing from 82.5% to 80.7% from 1951 to 1971 and increasing to 82.1% in 1991. In the same period, the percentage of anglophones decreased from 13.8% to 9.6% and the percentage of allophones - those whose mother-tongue is neither French nor English - increased from 3.7% to 8.3%. French as the language of everyday use stayed at the level of 83% of the population.
If these statistics speak to the vitality of the French language in Québec, they should not let us forget the immediate reasons for its precariousness. Québec's demographic weight within Canada has declined progressively since 1931, from 27.7% to 25.8% in 1986 and to 25% today. Between 1875 and 1965, Québec's fertility rate was higher than those of other North American regions. Beginning in the 1960s, however, Quebecers, setting aside the Catholic Church's support for a high birth rate and espousing more modern mores, began to produce fewer offspring. The outcome was that their birth rate became one of the lowest in the Western world. From 1956 to 1961, French-speaking Québec women had a fertility rate of 4.2 (4.2 births per woman of childbearing age). The rate dropped to 2.3 for 1966-1971 and then to 1.5 for 1981-1986 before rising to 1.6 in 1990, which is barely enough to replace the population, the rate of 2.1 being required to ensure replacement. Québec anglophones also experienced a less dramatic decline in their fertility rate which is now about on a par with that of francophones. The low fertility rate worries many Quebecers who fear that Québec's demographic weight is continuing to decline and that the proportion of francophones in Québec is being eroded.
On top of this is the fear that immigrants who have settled in Québec in large numbers since the turn of the century prefer English to French as the language of communication and culture. The proportion of Quebecers of other than French or British extraction was 1.6% in 1871 and 8.6% in 1961. As long as their exceptional fertility compensated for the arrival of immigrants, the francophone majority did not feel threatened. When their fertility began to decline, however, Québec's linguistic balance became shaky. This realization was heightened in the 1960s, a time when immigrants were free to choose their schools and laissez-faire was the practise for commercial signs. Over 85% of immigrants opted for English-language schools in the late 1960s. Statistics show that more and more ethnic minorities adopted English at the expense of French. While 48% of these minorities in Québec were drawn to English in 1931, the proportion had risen to 69.6% by 1961.
The precariousness of French in North America does not explain everything. The assimilation of francophones in Canada must cease being a hidden reality and governments must find a remedy for it. Although Québec had every reason to be concerned about the future of French culture and language, Québec governments did not choose to legislate between 1867 and 1964. Laissez-faire took the place of policy. What changed in the early 1960s was the perception Quebecers had of themselves and what they could achieve through their political institutions. Since the Conquest of 1760, French-speaking Quebecers had grown accustomed to living under the authoritative power of the Catholic Church which attended to preserving the language and the religion of the faithful. Quebecers saw themselves as belonging to a French-Canadian, minority and agrarian people, with religion and tradition serving as a bulwark against assimilation. Beginning in the nineteenth century, however, they experienced the industrialization of the economy, and in the early twentieth century, they asserted themselves as an urban people who, after World War Two, discovered the consumer society and modernism.
From the 1960s on, Québec society was swept by the winds of change that transformed it profoundly. Many of the ideas that had been talked about in Québec for decades were translated into political reforms. Quebecers urged their provincial government to raise the general level of education and to provide the population with public services worthy of a modern society. Many also discovered that although francophones were the majority in Québec and in Montréal, English was the language of prestige, business and public signs and that many company doors were closed to them. This was noted by two government commissions of enquiry on the status of French. In Montréal, immigrants' enthusiasm for English-language schools aroused fears among francophones and fueled heated debates. Francophones saw this tendency as a sign that if nothing was done, French would continue to decline in Montréal, as Marc V. Levine, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee specialist in urban issues, wrote:
By the 1960s, the Anglicization of the city's school clientele seemed to portend a Montreal in which the children of immigrants would become Anglophones and French-speakers would ultimately become a demographic minority. Thus, for important segments of the Francophone community, the individual right of parents to choose their children's language of schooling, historically respected in Quebec, now clashed with the 'collective right' of Francophones to survive and prosper as Francophones. In the eyes of Montreal's rising Francophone elite, the new middle class of teachers, journalists and policy professionals who had displaced traditional church elites as the leading force in French-Canadian society, Francophone minorisation in Montreal would spell ultimate doom for a living French language and culture throughout Quebec.
The slogan Maîtres chez nous (masters in our own house) used by the Liberals of Jean Lesage during the 1964 electoral campaign captures the spirit of the times, enamoured of change and progress. Opening careers in the public service and in companies to francophones, expanding the means of the Québec State, giving it the stature and structure of a modern government, separating Church and State more appropriately, reforming education, nationalizing electricity, providing Québec with a universal pension plan and more - that was the program and the ambition of the governments of the time, driven by the people's impatience and expectations. Quebecers then discovered a springboard for their economic and social progress in their democratic institutions, as Premier René Lévesque wrote in 1979:
The central fact of language makes Quebec the one Canadian province out of ten which is radically (in the root sense of the word) different from the rest of Canada. It makes Québec the home base, the homeland, of a compact, very deeply rooted, and rapidly evolving cultural group - there should be no mistake - which sees itself as a national group. Democratic control of provincial institutions in Quebec supplies the Quebec people with a powerful springboard for self-affirmation and self-determination.
This was also a time when francophones, having long defined themselves by their religious affiliation and their French origin, began to identify themselves in terms of language and the Québec territory. Quebecers stopped seeing themselves as a linguistic minority and learned to think of themselves as a political majority. They also began to demand protective measures for the French language from Québec and federal legislators.
Two commissions of enquiry blazed the trail for the language legislation we now have. In 1963, the federal government of Lester B. Pearson created a royal commission of enquiry - the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission - whose mandate was to review the existing "state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada" and to "recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races." After holding hearings across the country, the commissioners concluded in their preliminary report in 1965 that Canada "without being full conscious of the fact, is passing through the greatest crisis in its history." The Commission noted how deeply dissatisfied francophones were, convinced they were victims of unacceptable inequalities. The Commission's work demonstrated that francophones were not playing a role in the economy that was proportional to their real weight. It was shown that Anglo-Canadians of British origin dominated the economy; they held the most influential and best paid positions. In Québec, the French Canadian had an income 35% lower than the Anglo-Quebecer. And even bilingual Quebecers earned less than unilingual Anglo-Quebecers. The commission consequently recommended that "in the private sector in Québec, governments and industry adopt the objective that French become the principal language of work at all levels."
Seeing Québec as a model of an officially bilingual society, the Commission recommended that French and English become the official languages of Canada and that New Brunswick and Ontario make them so at the provincial level. Finally, it proposed the creation of "bilingual districts" where French and English would be used currently in educational and municipal institutions when the minority reached ten percent of the population. In the opinion of Jean-Claude Corbeil, former linguist at the Office de la langue française:
...you can say that the Commission made it obvious to Quebecers that the rules of the game on the use of French and English in Québec, especially in the work world, had to change and gave rise to the idea of setting by law the conditions for using one or the other language in order to guarantee a better status for the French language in all areas and more favourable conditions for its development, its growth and its advancement.
The provincial Gendron Commission was created in December 1968 to "enquire into and report on the status of French as a language of use in Québec." Its report was tabled in 1972. Like the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission, the Gendron Commission noted the domination of the English language in Québec's work world. Numerous inequalities separated francophones from anglophones: francophones earned less in general, held less important positions, benefited little from their bilingualism and often worked in English, in a proportion that did not reflect the high number of francophone workers. The Commission recommended that a series of measures be adopted to make French the common language of Quebecers. The commissioners summarized the reasons as follows:
In America, French is a fringe language. As such, its use is restricted even in areas where it is spoken by a majority of the population. This situation requires a clear policy: French can survive and flourish on the North American continent only with a maximum of opportunity and protection throughout Québec; and this can be accomplished only by making it a useful communication instrument for all the people of this area.(...) In the vast economic areas made up of Canada and the United States, French is defenceless in the struggle to impose its utility. This situation is not about to change. Thus in Québec, the vigour and dynamism of French can be ensured only through government support. Failing this, the odds in the match between French and English will remain too one-sided. This government action should aim at establishing French as the common language of Quebecers by making it useful and necessary for everyone in work communication.
The Commission recommended that the National Assembly declare French the official language of Québec, and English and French the national languages; that the government take steps to make French the language of internal communications in Québec in the work place and the language of communications in the government, professional corporations and parastatal institutions; that the right of the francophone consumer to be served in his language be recognized and that commercial signs be regulated in order to make the use of French mandatory.
Excerpt from Laws and Language in Québec: The Principles and Means of Québec's Language Policy by Marc Chevrier, 1997