Bill 101: the quiet evolution
Charter’s history of change provides path for the future, write James Shea and Geoffrey Chambers.
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.