Bill 101 (Charter of the French Language) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Bill 101 (Charter of the French Language)

Introduced by Camille Laurin, Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language (1977), made French the official language of the Government and the courts of Quebec. French became the ″normal, everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business."

Historical Context

With the advent of Confederation in 1867, the French Canadian leaders in Quebec realized that the rights of the francophone minorities were threatened. This was the case in New Brunswick, Ontario and Manitoba, most notably in the education systems (see New Brunswick Schools Question; Ontario Schools Question; Manitoba Schools Question). (See also North-West Schools Question; Section 23 and Francophone Education outside of Quebec.)

These realities paved the way for the forceful nationalism of Lionel Groulx. (See French Canadian Nationalism.) He viewed the Conquest as the worst catastrophe that could have befallen the French Canadian people. This nationalistic view later led to the separatist movement, including the Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale (see Parti Québécois).

The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963-1971) revealed that the political and economic weight of francophone Canadians was not proportionate to their numbers. In 1965, Quebec francophones were earning, on average, 35 per cent less than anglophones. More than 80 per cent of employers were anglophones. Francophone representation in the federal government and the provision of services in French outside Quebec had also been concerns for quite some time.

The Quebec nationalist movement felt that the vulnerability of the French language required it to be protected from the North American majority. Protecting the French language would also be a means of promoting it nationwide and would enable francophones to acquire economic and political control of the province.

Legislation in Quebec

The language laws in Quebec evolved gradually. (See Quebec Language Policy.) Bill 63 came into force in November 1969. It required children receiving their education in English to acquire a working knowledge of French. Bill 63 also required that measures be taken to ensure that immigrants had or acquired a working knowledge of French upon their arrival in Quebec. (See also Quebec Immigration Policy.) In 1974, the Liberal government of Robert Bourassa implemented Bill 22, which made French the official language of Quebec. The new law compelled all immigrants to Quebec to enrol in a French-language school.

A new language law was among the highest priorities of the Parti Québécois, which came to power in 1976 under the leadership of René Lévesque. In 1977, it introduced Bill 1. This bill was strongly supported by the nationalist groups and the unions, whose francophone members wished to have greater access to jobs. The PQ initiative was opposed by both the province’s business leaders and its anglophone population. This initial bill was withdrawn following pressure from the Liberal opposition, but was reintroduced as Bill 101.

Introduced by Camille Laurin, Bill 101 made French the official language of the government of Quebec and Quebec society. Instruction in French became mandatory for immigrants. This was even the case for those from other Canadian provinces. An exception was possible in the event that a ″reciprocal agreement" existed between Quebec and the province of origin.

The anglophone advocacy group Alliance Quebec was born of the ensuing conflict.

Court Challenges

A series of judgments changed the content and reduced the scope of Bill 101. In 1980, the Supreme Court of Canada nullified the section of the Charter making French the language of the National Assembly and the courts. (See Court System of Canada.) In 1984, it was ruled that Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms limited the power conferred by Bill 101 to regulate the language of instruction (see Bill 101 Case). Thus, children who had attended an English-language elementary school elsewhere in Canada had the right to enrol in the anglophone public system in Quebec. That year as well, the Supreme Court ruled that the mandatory use of French on public commercial signage was incompatible with the right to freedom of expression. While these judgments were a source of dissatisfaction for nationalist groups, they came as a relief to the anglophone population. As one might expect, such challenges to Bill 101 were a source of concern to members of both the Parti Québécois and the Liberal Party.

In December 1988, the government of Robert Bourassa introduced Bill 178. This bill allowed bilingual public signage, but only inside businesses. To avoid any other challenges, the government invoked Section 33, i.e., the notwithstanding clause, which allowed the law to circumvent certain clauses in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Other Language Provisions

In 1993, the government of Robert Bourassa introduced Bill 86. This bill allowed English on outdoor commercial signs. However, the French lettering had to be at least twice as large as the English.

During the years following the Quebec Referendum (1995), the Parti Québécois leaders were successful in containing the more radical positions regarding language policies. Despite this, in 2002, the Bernard Landry government passed Bill 104, closing a loophole providing access to English-language schools via ″bridging" schools. These schools enabled allophones and francophones to enter the anglophone public school system after studying in an English-language private school.

The Quebec Court of Appeal struck down this law in 2007, as did the Supreme Court of Canada in 2009. However, the Supreme Court of Canada gave Quebec one year to draft a new law that would comply with the Constitution of Canada. Thus, in 2010, the government of Quebec, under Liberal premier Jean Charest, introduced Bill 103. This law required at least three years of study in an English-language private school before allowing access to the anglophone public school system. Bill 115, which was subsequently passed by the Liberal government to provide a better framework for the bridging schools, was based on Bill 103.

In 2013, the Parti Québécois government introduced Bill 14, which some anglophone groups felt was worse than Bill 101. It extended the law to small businesses, in addition to revoking the bilingual status of any municipality whose anglophone population fell below 50 per cent. The bill was blocked by the opposition parties and the government eventually decided not to pursue this initiative.

Bill 96

In May 2021, the Coalition Avenir Québec government announced a major overhaul of Bill 101 via Bill 96, which became law on 1 June 2022. The Quebec government argued that it was necessary to preserve French in the province. Advocates from notably the Quebec anglophone and Indigenous communities criticized this initiative.

A series of measures were introduced. French was to become the government’s exclusive language of communication. Some exceptions were made for tourism, healthcare and for immigrants during their first six months in Quebec. Critics argued that the exception in healthcare is ambiguous while the six-month period for new immigrants is insufficient. Further exemptions include Indigenous peoples and anglophones with previously acquired linguistic rights. An exception was also made for the court system; however, the law specified that judges should not be required to know any languages other than French.

Bill 96 limits the number of students able to attend English-language CEGEPs. Specifically, 17.5 per cent of students in Quebec. Moreover, students in anglophone CEGEPs would need to take more classes in French.

Companies with 25 to 49 employees also became subject to Bill 101’s policy of having French be the common language at work. Previously, this provision only applied to companies with 50 or more employees.

Controversially, Bill 96 invokes the notwithstanding clause. This allows the law to bypass certain rights guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Some criticized the law for providing the OQLF with too much power to investigate if companies are using French.

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