Bill 101: the quiet evo­lu­tion

Char­ter’s his­tory of change pro­vides path for the fu­ture, write James Shea and Ge­of­frey Cham­bers.

Montreal Gazette - - OPINION -

Bill 101’s adop­tion 40 years ago marked a mile­stone in Que­bec lan­guage pol­i­tics. To bet­ter un­der­stand its sig­nif­i­cance, we must see it as part of a longer con­tin­uum. His­tory, nu­ance and con­text will best serve as our lenses.

The Char­ter of the French Lan­guage did not make French the sole of­fi­cial lan­guage of Que­bec. Pre­mier Robert Bourassa did that in 1974, with Bill 22. He was, in turn, build­ing off Union Na­tionale pre­mier Jean-Jacques Ber­trand’s Bill 63. That 1969 law sought to es­tab­lish French as the work­ing lan­guage.

Sim­i­larly, the op­er­a­tion of the Char­ter of the French Lan­guage has evolved sig­nif­i­cantly through the four decades that fol­lowed its adop­tion in 1977. Bill 101 ini­tially re­stricted the use of English in the courts and the Na­tional Assem­bly. It as­serted that laws must be adopted only in French. Those lim­i­ta­tions were stuck down by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1979.

Re­stric­tions pre­vent­ing English school­ing in Que­bec for the chil­dren of Cana­di­ans ed­u­cated in English in other prov­inces were ruled un­con­sti­tu­tional. Rules gov­ern­ing signs and many other pro­vi­sions have also been the sub­ject of suc­cess­ful court chal­lenges. The sec­ond gov­ern­ment of René Lévesque sub­stan­tially amended the Char­ter. Other sig­nif­i­cant changes were made on six sub­se­quent oc­ca­sions.

Bill 101 re­mains a peren­nial prospect for ju­di­cial re­view. For ex­am­ple, the United Na­tions Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights, Art. 26.3, grants par­ents “a prior right to choose the kind of ed­u­ca­tion that shall be given to their chil­dren.” To pro­tect the French lan­guage in Que­bec, the Supreme Court has al­lowed this right be abridged for most Que­be­cers, a group that in­cludes all fran­co­phones and all non-Cana­dian mi­grants. How­ever, this sus­pen­sion of civil lib­er­ties for the vast ma­jor­ity of Que­be­cers can only be tem­po­rary and tran­si­tional. Their un­der­ly­ing rights are not erased for­ever.

Things don’t ever stay the same. And they don’t al­ways get worse.

In­stead, these rights are sus­pended, to al­low a pe­riod of ad­just­ment. Cur­rent rules that gov­ern ac­cess to English schools could and should even­tu­ally be changed by the courts, with­out any change in Bill 101 it­self.

So while the Char­ter may have brought lan­guage peace, or at least a cli­mate of much re­duced strife, it is not a carved-in-stone defin­ing in­stru­ment of lan­guage prac­tices. Rather, it should be viewed as one of the con­trol­ling el­e­ments in an evolv­ing dis­cus­sion about so­cial prac­tices.

Even Bill 101’s most ba­sic as­serted prin­ci­ple — its ring­ing dec­la­ra­tion that “French is Que­bec’s only of­fi­cial lan­guage” — is a re­sound­ing state­ment of in­ten­tion that flies in the face of con­sti­tu­tional, le­gal and prac­ti­cal re­al­ity. The right to use English is con­sti­tu­tion­ally guar­an­teed in the courts, in the leg­is­la­ture and in English schools. Fur­ther, it is legally guar­an­teed in health and so­cial ser­vices leg­is­la­tion, when­ever ci­ti­zens deal with Rev­enue Que­bec and in hun­dreds of other cir­cum­stances pro­tected by var­i­ous Que­bec statutes.

The fed­eral Of­fi­cial Lan­guages Act rec­og­nizes of­fi­cial lan­guage mi­nori­ties in all prov­inces. The English-speak­ing com­mu­nity of Que­bec is by far the largest and in many ways the most com­plex. The gov­ern­ment of Que­bec has de­nied and ig­nored the ex­is­tence of an of­fi­cial lan­guage mi­nor­ity. How can there be such a thing in a ju­ris­dic­tion with one of­fi­cial lan­guage?

Now, how­ever, a di­a­logue has be­gun to cre­ate a sec­re­tar­iat in the pre­mier’s of­fice to address the needs of the English-speak­ing com­mu­nity and to be­gin to rem­edy the pro­found ig­no­rance and in­dif­fer­ence of the Que­bec civil ser­vice to the fact of English Que­bec.

Yes, our four decades un­der Bill 101 and our roughly half-cen­tury of lan­guage leg­is­la­tion have given rise to very real and rel­e­vant griev­ances. But this evolv­ing process has also fos­tered dis­cus­sion, pro­vided us op­por­tu­ni­ties to en­gage and pre­sented us venues to ar­gue in our in­ter­est. Things don’t ever stay the same. And they don’t al­ways get worse. Let’s work to make them bet­ter.

James Shea is pres­i­dent and Ge­of­frey Cham­bers is vice-pres­i­dent of the Que­bec Com­mu­nity Groups Net­work, which brings to­gether 53 English-lan­guage com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions across Que­bec.

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