Speaking out: Quebec's debate over language laws

An in-depth look at the history of language legislation in Quebec, from the early 20th century to recent Supreme Court challenges

Debate over language legislation is certainly nothing new in Quebec.

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)

The first laws governing the use of French in the province were passed early in the 20th century. The first was the Lavergne Law, passed in 1910, which required that tickets for buses, trains and trams be printed in both French and English.

In 1937, the government of Premier Maurice Duplessis passed a law requiring the French text of Quebec laws to prevail over the English, reasoning that the French would better reflect the intent of the lawmakers. Anglophones in Quebec resented the law, and it was repealed the following year.

In the fall of 1969, Quebec's last Union Nationale government — the party of Duplessis — passed Bill 63. It was an attempt to address a number of issues. One involved a school board in the Montreal suburb of Saint-Léonard that had decided that all children whose mother tongue was not English would have to go to French schools. That angered many in the community, which had a high concentration of Italian immigrants.

The legislation was also designed to improve access to French classes for immigrants to help them better integrate into Quebec society.

However, in effect, the bill guaranteed Quebecers the right to choose in which language their children would be educated. Critics argued that would mean that Quebec's rapidly growing allophone (neither French nor English) community would gravitate toward the English community.

The legislation was cited as a major factor in the defeat of the government in 1970 – and the eventual disappearance of the Union Nationale as a political force in Quebec.

Bill 22 passed: 1974

In 1974, the Quebec Liberals under Premier Robert Bourassa passed Bill 22, la Loi sur la langue officielle, which made French the province's official language. Under the legislation, French became the official language of contracts.

Corporations were forced to adopt French names and to advertise primarily in French in Quebec. They also had to acquire a certificate of francization, which could only be obtained when a company showed it could function in French and address its employees in French.

The legislation also restricted enrolment in English schools for the first time. Children had to show they had an understanding of English before they could be admitted to an English school.

The legislation came under attack from both sides of the language divide.

The English community resented having to put their kids through tests to get into an English school. Critics on the French side said the legislation didn't do enough to protect the language.

Bill 101 passed: 1977

Language played a major role in the defeat of Bourassa's Liberals in 1976 and the election of Quebec's first separatist government. In the summer of 1977, the Parti Québécois government, under the leadership of René Lévesque, passed Bill 101 — the Charter of the French Language.

Yves Ménard joins a march in support of Quebec's language law in Montreal on Aug. 26, 2007. ((Peter McCabe/Canadian Press))

Within that bill was the declaration that French was to be the only language allowed on commercial signs in the province. With few exceptions, the use of English was banned.

On the education front, English was to be restricted mostly to children already in the system or their siblings; children of parents who were temporarily posted to Quebec; or children whose parents had received an English elementary education in the province (eventually, that regulation was relaxed to allow children of people educated in English elsewhere in Canada to access to English schools).

Many retailers were upset by the new law. Morton Brownstein, owner of a Montreal shoe store, took his case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1988, the court said that English could not be prohibited altogether but that requiring the predominance of French on commercial signs was a reasonable limit on freedom of expression.

The public reaction in Quebec was swift and forceful. Confronted with the angry demonstrations of those defending Bill 101, Robert Bourassa — back from the political wasteland for his second tour as premier by then — came up with a compromise.

The notwithstanding clause and Bill 178

Invoking the so-called notwithstanding clause, which allows governments to override parts of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in exceptional circumstances, Bourassa introduced Bill 178 in December 1988. It decreed that only French could be used on exterior signs while English would be allowed inside commercial establishments.

Here are some cases that have attracted the interest of the language watchdog or people seeking to protect the French language:

  • 1996: A woman warns the owner of a Quebec pet store she might get in touch with language authorities because Peekaboo, the parrot she wanted to buy, didn't speak French.
  • 1999: The Old Navy chain is asked to rename its stores "La Vieille Rivière." It never happens.
  • 2000: The owner of an Indian restaurant is told he's breaking the law by having coasters for "Double Diamond," a British beer.
  • 2001: Some people express disappointment that race-car driver Jacques Villeneuve calls his restaurant "Newtown."
  • 2005: Language authorities say they will investigate complaints that Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay's party used the word "Go" on its campaign posters and pamphlets, as in "Go Montreal."
  • 2007: Imperial Oil says it will keep its Quebec-only "Marché Express" name for its Esso gas stations after protests against a proposal to change the name to "On the Run," as the stations are known elsewhere in North America.
  • 2007: Language activists decry that callers to many Quebec government offices are told to "press nine" for English before instructions are delivered in French. Some of the departments have since changed the message to put English at the end.

But in the provincial election of the following year, four members of the new English-rights Equality Party were elected to the National Assembly.

And in 1993, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that Quebec's sign laws broke an international covenant on civil and political rights. "A State may choose one or more official languages," the committee wrote, "but it may not exclude outside the spheres of public life, the freedom to express oneself in a certain language."

Reacting to these events, Bourassa introduced new legislation in 1993. This law would allowed English on outdoor commercial signs only if the French lettering was at least twice as large as the English.

Bill 86 passed: 1993

Under this new law, known as Bill 86, Gwen Simpson and Wally Hoffman, owners of a small antique store near Montreal called The Lyon and the Wallrus, faced a $500 fine because the English and French words on their sign were the same size. They contested the fine.

A Quebec court ruling in 1999 said the province can't continue to impose restrictions on the use of languages other than French on commercial signs unless it can prove the fragility of the French language in Quebec society. But the Quebec Superior Count overturned that decision in April 2000, citing Quebec's unique geographical situation as an enclave of French speakers on an English-speaking continent.

The owners of The Lyon and the Wallrus (La lionne et le morse) appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada – but it refused to hear the appeal.

Education court challenges

There have been other court challenges as well – especially when it comes to education. The language-of-instruction clause has been considered the cornerstone of Bill 101.

On March 31, 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on a case  filed by French-speaking parents who wanted the right to enrol their children in English schools. The court decided that legislation preventing French-speaking Quebecers from placing their children in English schools was reasonable. It said that linguistic majorities have no constitutional right to receive education in the minority language.

But the ruling — along with two others handed down that day — did require that the government make some changes in the legislation to comply with the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court laid down new legal criteria that could make it easier for immigrants and native-born Canadians to gain access to English schools – as long as they have had some education in English.

Bill 104 declared unconstitutional

In October 2009, the Supreme Court stepped into the language debate again, this time  declaring unconstitutional a Quebec law barring certain students from going to public English-language schools. The court called the law "excessive" and lacking nuance and gave Quebec one year to replace it with an appropriate compromise.

A group of Quebec parents challenged the legislation, Bill 104, shortly after it was adopted by the province in 2002. The controversial law closed a loophole in Bill 101 that allowed parents who sent their children to private English school for a short time to subsequently register them in Quebec's public English-language system.

Prior to Bill 104, students who attended private English school for a year or less became eligible, under Bill 101, to enter the English public system.

After the ruling, Premier Jean Charest said he hopes to work with opposition parties on a legislative response that will underscore the "primacy of the French language" as a "key value" in Quebec society.