Language and Quebec: the Fixation

in Other

by Melissa Upton

As language students, we are familiar with the impact that language has on cultures and peoples. We are fluent in how it has shaped history and continue to learn how it affects our own generations. As a  resident who was born and raised in Quebec, I am no stranger to this ever growing conversation and  have tried to capture if nothing but a brief portion of it below.

As a resident of Quebec, one quickly develops an understanding of the tumultuous linguistic history that has given shape to the province as it stands today. Language, explicitly that of French and English, has been at the forefront of many high profile discussions, laws, and political and artistic movements within Quebec. This struggle that began as early as the 18th century with the desire for the recognition of the Francophone population and the reconstitution of governing affairs has since developed into a battle between Canada’s two nationally sanctioned languages. The progression of which has seen Francophone Quebec call for autonomy from Canada and what appears to be the quieting, as well as the cooperation, of the Anglo and Allophone communities under the pretense of this being necessary for the preservation of the French language and the history of Francophone Quebec.

Since the early 1900’s, Quebec nationalism and the sovereignty movement have carried the French language as their torch. It has been the driving force behind a multitude of historical events; some more recent and influential examples being the Quiet Revolution and the October Crisis. The Quiet Revolution was a momentous chapter of political and cultural change amongst Quebec society, beginning with the provincial government of Liberal Jean Lesage in 1960 and ending just shy of the October Crisis of 1970. It was a period in which the Quebec government secularized the education system, introduced a Ministry of Social Affairs – which would go on to become the Ministry of Health and Social Services in 1985 – and mandated the nationalization of the province’s electric companies, resulting in the creation of Hydro-Quebec.  

The Quiet Revolution put in motion not only the province’s journey towards economic autonomy, but its desire for political independence.

Soon after, the October Crisis took place involving numerous members of an organization known as the FLQ. The Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) was a separatist paramilitary faction who coordinated upwards of 160 violent acts over the course of a seven-year time frame (~1963-1970). The October Crisis involved the kidnapping of James Cross, the British Trade Commissioner, and Pierre Laporte, the Minister of Labour and Vice-Premier of Quebec. This crisis lead to the government of Pierre Trudeau calling for the first ever invocation of the War Measures Act during peacetime.

Pierre Laporte was later executed by the FLQ when their demands were denied, and after 62 days of captivity, James Cross was released following negotiations. The significance of this occasion lies in the manner in which it contributed to the transitioning of support away from such violent and radical measures and towards more political means.

Quebec nationalist and sovereignist sentiments have since continued to make themselves present in most every facet of daily provincial life, from political parties, to the creation of laws and bills which go on to touch fundamental areas such as those of education and business.

Politically, Quebec nationalism and sovereignty has inspired the creation of parties at both the federal and provincial level. At the federal level exists the Bloc Québecois (the Bloc). The Bloc Québecois was founded in 1990 by Lucien Bouchard, the former cabinet minister for the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney. This federal party aimed to give the province of Quebec a voice within the House of Commons and further the support for an independent Quebec. Provincially, the Parti Québecois (the PQ) was created by René Lévesque around 1968 with the merger of the Mouvement Souveraineté Association and the Ralliement national. The PQ stood for Quebec’s independence from Canada on all major platforms; economically, politically and socially, and is also responsible for the introduction of the referenda tactic. In addition to their shared goals, the Bloc Québecois and the Parti Québecois were also likeminded in their consideration of Quebec’s relationship with Canada post-separation. Both the Bloc and PQ founders, Lucien Bouchard and René Lévesque, recognized that Quebec would need to have some sort of an association agreement with Canada if Quebec expected to be successful in its newfound independence. The economic uncertainty that this generated went on to play a defining role in Quebec’s second referendum held by the PQ during their time as the elected provincial government in 1995. The vote surrounding this referendum brought forward a record-breaking turnout of 93.52% of the voting population, and was arguably the closest Quebec has been to sovereignty with the deciding No votes totaling 50.58%.   

The state of Quebec’s legislation is in direct association to the aforementioned political parties. The laws and bills that are most weighted with nationalist inclinations are those proposed and implemented under the governance of the Parti Québecois. The creation and application of bills such as Bill 101 is a prime example. Bill 101 is officially instated as La charte de la langue française (the Charter of the French Language). Camille Laurin, the Minister of Cultural Development, under the government of the Parti Québecois, proposed this legislative piece in 1977. The Charter was intended as an expansion to the Official Language Act, also known as Bill 22, of 1974 that made French the official provincial language. Bill 101 is made up of six titles and two schedules spanning topics from the status of the French language to punitive stipulations. Areas affected by the Charter are those such as education and business.

Bill 101 acts as a controller early on in provincial life when it comes to determining which language of instruction a child may and may not receive, and by association, which schools they are able to attend. These conditions are written out in Chapter 8 of the Charter of the French Language and are a part of the Charter that has been revised to be more considerate of constitutional rights. Initially in 1977, the Charter mandated that other than French being the language of instruction from Kindergarten to Secondary school, a child may only receive instruction in English if either of their parents is a Canadian citizen and they themselves received elementary instruction in English within Quebec. So long as this comprised the bulk of their education. In 1982, this was amended to be more tolerant by allowing a child to be taught in English if the parent’s English instruction was received anywhere in Canada.

On a corporate level, the Charter repurposed the Office québecois de la langue français (OQLF) by extending its responsibilities. The OQLF was established in 1961 by Liberal leader Jean Lesage with the aim of prioritizing the French language in Quebec. With the formation of the Charter, the OQLF was given the mission of enforcing all policies pertaining to the francization of corporations and of civil administration as one of its duties. The impact that Bill 101 and the OQLF had on businesses was that by the French language being mandated as the official language of the province, it was also mandated as the language of labour relations, commerce and businesses. In recent years, the OQLF has been criticized for being overzealous and even oppressive in this undertaking, an example being making suggestions to restaurateurs that go so far as to recommend the change of the Italian use of pasta on menus.

Looking back upon Quebec’s Francophone roots and history to where it stands today, one is taken on a journey of high and low points. Plenty of changes have been implemented that benefited Quebec and righted past wrongs towards the Francophone community, these are changes we as a province, and Canada as a country, can be proud of. Yet recently there have been paths and discussion forums for changes that one simply cannot support. Be it the Quebec Charter of Values that the Parti Québecois attempted to implement, which would have infringed on and restricted basic human rights and freedoms. Be it the excesses that the Office québecois de la langue français has taken when enforcing the French language. Or be it the anti-immigration comments which translates as Quebec-elitists worrying about the “pureness” of their province – failing to recognize that Quebec does not subsist as it is today solely by the doings of Francophones born in Quebec. That there are centuries and generations that came before them and that acceptance and growth is what has made Canada and Quebec the wonderfully colourful amalgam of cultures they are today. There is nothing offensive or wrong with celebrating the French language and the history it has here in Quebec, it is entirely understandable.  However, it is less evident why the promotion of one language and one culture mandates the oppression and dissolution of others.

Note on the sources:

I used the Canadian Encyclopedia for any information I needed –

Melissa Upton

Melissa is a recent graduate from Concordia University who completed her BA in Specialization in English Literature. Her main interests are the study of language and literature across history and cultures.