English and French in Quebec: The History Behind Law 101

Fabienne Beauséjour

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Language remains a controversial issue in Quebec, especially Montreal. The adequacy of Law 101 is at the core of many discussions in and outside the province. People's understanding of this law depends on whether they sit among the Francophones or Anglophones. Most French speakers believe this law is very important and fair, while most English speakers see the Charter of the French language as a totalitarian law. Thirty five years after Bill 101 was passed, the government of Quebec still has to defend some of its amendments in court.


Year after year, authors write articles and books about language in Montreal. Every day, bloggers give their opinion on that matter. This situation can be very surprising for a foreigner. If you are a newcomer in Montreal, you need to know that although Montreal is one of the most culturally diverse communities, the coexistence of Anglophones and Francophone still creates political and linguistic tension all over the province.


Many people judge this situation and give opinions on law 101 without having the "whole picture". Language planning in Quebec is a very complex history. In order to make a clear judgement about the relevance of Law 101, people need to understand how the English and French came to live together, how they evolved through history, and how Law 101 was adopted.

How English and French came to share the same territory and the beginning


First of all, it is important to know that the victory of the English on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 certainly changed the future of the province of Quebec, and the use of French language in the territory. The coexistence of French and English began with the conquest of Nouvelle-France by the English in this battle. Until France officially ceded the territory to the Britain with the treaty of Paris in 1763, the territory around Gulf of St-Lawrence was known as "Nouvelle-France". According to Louis Massicotte, Nouvelle-France existed when imperialism was at its best, prior to the French revolution. Massicotte also explains that "in the 18th century, a period when monarchs exchanged territories like commodities, nations defined themselves by religion and common allegiance to a sovereign - not by the language of their inhabitants. It is revealing that in the capitulation treaties of Québec and Montréal and the Treaty of Paris, not a single word was mentioned about the French language." (Massicotte)


Before the conquest, the colonists were in fact strongly faithful to France, even if those who permanently lived in the territory were called the Canadians. During this period, French was the only the instrument for communication in Montreal and the rest of the territory. There were other dialects from the French region where they came from, but it was not a matter of dispute, simply because people did not identify themselves as Francophone. They rather saw themselves as subjects of France. Today, we know with the rest of the history that this perception has changed since the Conquest.


Even if the Canadians had to adjust to the "new boss in town" (the British), they obtained a certain number of privileges that were unusual for their time. With the Royal Proclamation, the colony had to live with a new constitution coming from London, a Protestant empire. However, a few years later (1774), the English allowed the newly conquered colony to practice catholic religion and have clergy. Beside, the new Metropole concedes them the right of keeping the French civil code. In their analysis, many historians claim that the Canadians had several factors to their advantage.  One of them is that the French Canadians exceeded the newly arrived English by a large number. Michel Brunet informs us in his book La Présence Anglaise et les Québécois that the British colonizer had a plan to assimilate the French Canadians rapidly with the immigration of a great number of English, but not many people accepted to come and live in such a rude climate (Brunet 212).


Furthermore, London feared a revolt from the Canadians because they had just come out of expensive war that lasted seven years and they had to deal with the case of the thirteen colonies of the south, where more and more voices were raising and spreading rebellious propaganda with the idea being separate from the British Crown. The privileges received by this new colony only amplified the anger of the thirteen colonies a few years later; in 1783, they became an independent country known as the United-States. On their side, the Canadians did not feel the urgency to start a revolt because they were still in a good position.


After the arrival of the loyalists, it became more obvious that there were two distinct linguistic communities in Canada. When colonies on the south obtained their independence and formed the United-States, around 6 000 Anglophones who wanted to stay faithful to the crown (the loyalists) moved to the Canadian's territory (Corbeil 70). At their arrival, loyalists realised that although they are officially in a British territory, the inhabitants were very different from them. They had another religion, another civil law regime, and additionally, they spoke French. For all these reasons, they asked London for their own territory. The empire satisfied their will in 1791 and the Constitutional Law divided the territory into two sections called Upper-Canada, with about 15 000 English loyalist, and Lower-Canada, with about 140 000 French Canadians (Corbeil 71). Nevertheless, the English population that had lived in Montreal for a long time did not leave like most loyalists had done. In Montreal, the situation is very particular. There is an English minority, with almost all the political and economical power, living among a majority of French majority. You could argue that the situation was the same before the arrival of the loyalists, but now, people in Lower-Canada could compare themselves to Upper-Canada.  The English also dominated the economy on this upper side, but what makes the difference, is that most inhabitants are also English.



The failed assimilation the Francophones


Seeing that Francophone cannot be assimilated if they are not in contact with the English, London decided to assimilate Upper and Lower Canada in 1841 with the Union Act and later, added more territories to be included in the confederation. The decision to unify the two parts of Canada was taken after Lord Durham has expressed his concern on the importance to assimilate those Francophone as soon as possible because he saw them as people with no history and no education.


Durham reported to London that "The language, the laws and the character of the North American continent are English, and every other race than the English race is in a state of inferiority. It is in order to release them from this inferiority that I wish to give the Canadians our English character", says Lord Durham (CBC). Britain believe that the assimilation would be a lot easier if English and French were under the same government and represented in the parliamentary by the same numbers of Anglophones and Francophone, no matter how well it represented the demographic situation of Canada at that time.


Additionally, English was declared the only official language of the Parliament. Things did not always go smoothly with all those political changes in favour of the English. The French in Canada felt that they were treated unjustly because the political power did not represents them. Canada then knew the most violent acts of protest since the Conquest with the rebellions of the Partiotes in 1837-1838, who required more justice for Francophone. With the Confederation thirty years later, new territories progressively joined to form the Canadian territory. B.P Waite says that the way we know Canada as it is today started with the Confederation: "The union of the British North American colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Canada (Canada being an earlier 1841 union of Lower Canada and Upper Canada), was achieved 1 July 1867 under the new name, Dominion of Canada. It was soon expanded with the addition of Manitoba and the North-West Territory (15 July 2021), British Columbia (20 July 2021), Prince Edward Island (1 July 2021), and ultimately Newfoundland (31 March 2022)." (Waite) This period was the beginning of a new era because the presence of English around the Francophone was even greater.


The English did not assimilate the French as they wished, but the actions from the conquest to the Confederation had many consequences on the French language. After the conquest, a great part of the French educational system collapsed. There were some more fortunate families who could afford to send their children to French school but most of the French Canadians were uneducated or educated at a very low level. Consequently, French was verbally transferred from generation to generation but it became mostly a vernacular language. The evolution of the language in Quebec became quite different from other French countries because it was only a spoken language for many people, since a lot of Francophones were poorly educated or illiterate. Jean-Claude Corbeil explains that the fact French Canadians had no contact with France for decades; the French in Canada progressed in a very distinct manner. (Corbeil) The Catholic Church was in charge of the French educational system, but it was not accessible to everyone.


French being less educated then English is also a reality reflected in the economy; however, the economic power of the English was not enough to assimilate the French population. English were incontestably the wealthier than French, and with a large difference. In Le choc des langues, Bouthillier and Meynaud reported what Alexis de Tocqueville said about Lower-Canada after he had visit in 1831: "It is easy to understand that the French are the conquered. Most of those in a higher social class are English. French is almost the universal language, yet most news papers, billboards and the French commerce's board are all in English. They owned almost all the commerce.


The two groups evolved so differently that one chose to be exclusively name Canadians while the other still called himself British." (Bouthillier and Meynaud, 139) This testimony reveals how the French were seriously dominated in many areas. English is the language associated with wealth. Many English words are integrated in the French vocabulary because the everyday routine at work was happening in English. Yes, the French speakers live in an English environment; on the other hand, they also continue to speak French among each other. Corbeil explains the few educated bourgeois criticized that phenomenon, where French often use English words when they speak French, but they never tried to defend the use of French language in the work placed. (Corbeil, 67-68) Even if the group was never assimilated, the supremacy of English was accepted by the French until the 1960s.


Quebec starts to understand the factors that influence the evolution of English and French in its territory


During the 1960s, Francophones started to see the future under a new light. The leaders and the citizens changed paradigms on the question of language. This period is also known as the Revolution Tranquille. It is a very important period in the history of language in Quebec because many events that shaped people's vision for the province's future happened during that time. In opposition to the resignation that most Quebecois felt in front of the English supremacy, leaders and citizens started to express in public that the question of language is also a matter of social justice. For many years before, the only critics about the French language in Quebec were about the poor quality of the language in general. The population started to understand that the place of French in the work place is directly linked to its quality. In 1963, the federal government of Lester B. Pearson gave the mandate to a commission to investigation on bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada. They wanted to understand how the English community and the French community evaluated together.


After the conclusions of the Commission on Bilingualism in Canada, the Quebecois realized how much the French speakers were discriminated in the work place. This investigation compared the salary of the fourteen most important ethnic groups in the province. It was revealed that the French speakers were the ranked 12th out of fourteen, in the richest group in the province (Rapport de la Commission royal d'enquête sur le bilinguisme et le biculturalisme). A few years later, another provincial commission (Commission Gendron) came with the same shocking conclusion: Francophones were discriminated against in the work market, even if they were the most numerous group in the population.


Indeed, after hundreds years, when you visit the province, you still felt like it is run by the English, while most of the population is francophone. In his book I don't Speak French, Graham Fraser explained his experience in Montreal in 1965, when he was a student. He says that when he was in an Italian restaurant with a colleague from a small town in Quebec, he had to order for her because the waitress did not speak French. Later when they took a cab, he had to give the destination because the cab driver spoke no French either. He affirms that this situation was very frustrating for his French colleague, who felt like a visitor in her own country (Fraser 136-137). In this period, the government also nationalized Hydro-Quebec, seeking more economic freedom, which would inevitably help to change the situation of Francophones in the province. In the 1960s, the Francophones in Quebec choose to differentiate themselves from other French communities in Canada by refusing to call themselves French-Canadians. They were now known as Quebecois. They claimed more access to jobs, they claimed the control of the education system, they claimed their natural resources, they claimed a French environment and in the end, they even started to dream about an independent country.


The crisis in Saint-Leonard was also a very important event in the history of the province of Quebec because it forced the politicians to create the first linguistic law. When the school board decided in 1963, that most classes would be taught only in French instead of having bilingual classes, it made the Italian immigrant community and a few French parents furious because they believed their children would have better chance for employment if they spoke English. This story lasted for months. The tension between the Francophones parents and the Italian immigrant parents rose to such a level that at some point the two groups started to fight in front of a school in Saint-Leonard. Before this event, the politicians had always avoided the question of language in the province since they know that this subject was particularly sensitive among the voters.


The immigrant parents claimed the right to send their children to an English school. With these events, the government realized that it had to find a legislation that would take state the government's position for the entire province, not for this unique case only. It was then the beginning of provincial laws in Quebec, when the Parliament of Quebec adopted bill 63 in November 1969. This law made most French speakers furious because it gave total freedom to parents regarding the language in which their children will be educated. In 1974, the Bourassa government replace law 63 by law 22. This law declared that French is the only official language of Quebec, but in fact it was not very different from the previous law. This time Francophones were unhappy because they did not see many changes, and Anglophones also were not happy that English was not an official language. Three years later, the government of René Lévesque replaced law 22 with law 101.


To conclude, Quebec has many challenges ahead when it comes to linguistic policy. As we have seen, two linguistic communities have shared this territory for hundreds of years. Both of them feel this is their home, but they do not feel like they are one nation. Moreover, the province has to make sure its laws respect both legal systems that have unique world views. Indeed, the Canadian English common law sees the individual right as priority, while the French civil law in Quebec sees community right as priority. This fact explains why since its amendment in 1977, Law 101 has known many changes. Almost every time an article of the law was contested, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. It demonstrates that right now, we have people from two sides that are ready to fight. In the future, it will require effort from everyone. The English Speaker should respect  that Quebec society has chosen to continue in French while the French speaker should recognize the English rights and avoid treating them as outsiders.




Works Cited


Bouthillier, Guy, and Meynaud, Jean. Le choc des langues au Québec, 1760-1960, Montréal, Presses de l'Université du Québec, 1972, 768 p. The authors observe the duality of language from the conquest to the Revolution tranquille.


Brunet, Michel, La présence anglaise et les Québécois. Montréal; Les Éditions des Intouchables, 2009. In the 6th chapter, the author writes on the history of survival of the French-Canadians and he looks into the economical inferiority of this group from the Conquest to the Confederation.


CBC, The union of Upper and Lower Canada; 1839 Lord's Durham Report,2001 [internet source] http://www.cbc.ca/history/EPISCONTENTSE1EP7CH5PA1LE.html. In this page, there is a summary of the report of Lord Durham that he sent to London in 1839.


Commission royal d'enquête sur le bilinguisme et le biculturalisme, Rapport de la Commission royale d'enquête sur le bilinguisme et le multiculturalisme, Livre 3A, Le monde du travail, Ottawa, 1969 Imprimeur de la Reine. [Internet source]



Corbeil, Jean-Claude. L'embarras des langues. Quebec: Éditions Québec-Amérique inc, 2007. This book was written by the former director of the Office Québécoise de la langue française (1970 to 1977). He studied the origine of linguistic's policy in Quebec, its elaboration and its evolution.


Fraser, Graham, Sorry I don't Speak French: confronting the Canadian crisis that won't go away, McClelland and stewart, 2007.


Massicotte, Louis. From French to British Regime, entry on The Canadian Encyclopedia, [Internet source]http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=ArchivedFeatures&Params=A2178. This encyclopedia was especially created for the

WAITE, P. B., Confederation, entry on The Canadian Encyclopedia [Internet source] http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=A1ARTA000184


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