On July 31, 1974 — exactly 40 years ago — French became the only official language in Quebec.

A war of words and principles raged between anglophones and francophones at the time. Anglophones fought to preserve their rights while more and more French-speaking Quebecers lobbied for better protection of their language, particularly with regard to the francisation of immigrants.

That edict, introduced by Robert Bourassa and his Liberal government, was meant to remove any ambiguity about language in the province. It was known as Bill 22, the precursor to Bill 101 that came three years later.

“The 1960s were a time of major changes in Quebec, like elsewhere around the world. Here, we became aware of some gaps in the protection of the French language,” said Office québécois de la langue française spokesman Jean-Pierre Le Blanc.

Groundwork on bills 22 and 101 was laid during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. The Parti Québécois was created in 1968 amid the language turmoil; a year later, the Union Nationale government led by Jean-Jacques Bertrand adopted Bill 63, which would go on to become An Act to promote the French language in Québec.

St-Léonard Conflict

The flames of language debates in the province were stoked by what has come to be known as the St-Léonard Conflict, which came to a head in 1968.

The conflict began when an act was passed to phase out English instruction from schools in the predominantly Italian-immigrant neighbourhood. Bill 63 was passed in 1969 as an attempt to smooth out thorny relations between Montreal’s Italian community, the province and Quebec francophones.

That law had provisions promoting French in education, including offering French courses to new immigrants. It also permitted parents to choose whether their children received English or French instruction.

That law was superseded by Bill 22.

Bourassa between a rock and a hard place

Robert Bourassa’s Liberals won 75 of the National Assembly’s 108 seats in the April 1970 election, inheriting with his win a mandate to table a bill to better protect the French language.

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An unidentified war veteran demonstrates outside the Montreal offices of the Quebec government's language commission in 1987. Bill 101 and subsequent legislation have stirred passions and protests in Quebec - both for and against the laws. (Bill Grimshaw/Canadian Press)

In 1974, despite persistent opposition from Quebec’s anglophone and Italian communities, Bourassa’s government passed Bill 22.

Bourassa also expressed his intention to make French the primary language in public administration, public enterprise, the workplace, business and education.

Still, not all francophones were pleased with the bill. Many sovereigntists said the bill didn’t have any teeth and that it didn’t go nearly far enough.

Bourassa’s move would ultimately contribute to his defeat at the hands of the PQ two years later.

In 1977, Bill 101 — also known as the Charter of the French Language — was passed by René Lévesque’s government, further restricting access to English instruction in Quebec.

Nearly 40 years later, the bill remains a thorn in the side of many English-speaking Quebecers.

Couillard marks anniversary

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard marked the anniversary of Bill 22 by issuing a statement noting its significance in the province’s history.

“The adoption of French as the official language of Quebec by Robert Bourassa was a key moment in our affirmation. We want to share our attachment for this distinct and unifying language. We celebrate the richness and splendour of the language that is at the heart of our society,” Couillard’s statement read.

The premier vowed to continue fighting for the protection of the French language throughout his term.