Quebec Language Policy

Quebec is the only province in Canada where francophones make up the majority population. For almost two centuries, clerics, writers and journalists maintained that preserving the French language was the only possible safeguard for the survival of the Quebec nation (see Francophone Nationalism in Quebec). However, it wasn’t until the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s that governments in Quebec began to actively legislate on the issue. Since 1974, French has been the only official language in the province, although some government services remain accessible in English. Quebec has the distinction of being bilingual on constitutional and federal levels, while officially allowing only French in its provincial institutions.

Jean Lesage
Jean Lesage. His party came to power in 1960 and introduced the many reforms collectively called the Quiet Revolution.

Creation of the Office de la langue française (1961)

After the creation of the Office de la langue française (French Language Office) in 1961 by the Liberal government of  Jean Lesage, who believed that "bien parler, c'est se respecter" (to speak well is to respect oneself), action in support of the quality of the French language increased. The first exchange projects between France and Quebec began in 1965. From 1966 to 1968, the Daniel Johnson, Sr government made every effort to position French as the dominant language in Quebec: French became mandatory on food-product labels, and the foundation was laid for an immigration department that required newcomers to have a working knowledge of the language (see Quebec Immigration Policy). The law that formally created this department (Loi créant le ministère de l’Immigration du Québec) received the assent of the lieutenant-governor of Quebec several weeks after Johnson’s death on 26 September 1968.

The first language-law drafts appeared under the Jean-Jacques Bertrand government following the 1968 education crisis, during which a large number of  Italian immigrants living in Saint-Léonard demanded education in English as well as French. This initial legislation (Bill 85), which allowed parents to choose their children’s language of instruction, was decried by the province’s francophone community, to whom it represented a new danger of assimilation from within Quebec itself. Bill 85 was consequently withdrawn and the Gendron Commission (1968–73) was formed to analyze the situation of the French language in the province.

In 1969, legislation to promote the French language in Quebec (Bill 63) was enacted. It guaranteed parents the right to choose the language of instruction for their children, with the Ministry of Education simply ensuring that children taught in English acquire "a working knowledge of French." Consequently, non-French speakers were anglicized, and francophones united to form le Front du Québec français, which demanded that French become the only official language in Quebec.

Bourassa, Robert
As premier, he was instrumental in negotiating the terms of the Meech Lake Accord and strongly supported free trade with the US.
(courtesy CP)

Official Language Act (Bill 22) (1974)

The report of the Gendron Commission, presented in February 1973 under the Robert Bourassa government, officially proposed that French become the only official language in Quebec, while French and English would both remain national languages. As to the language of education, the decision was left to the government, which, faced with increasing social unrest, drafted Bill 22, (the  Official Language Act) in 1974. The new bill was intended to compensate for the shortcomings of Bill 63.

Bill 22 made French the language of provincial government administration, services and labour, but its application remained vague. The Liberals, wishing to preserve bi-ethnicity and  biculturalism, left room for ambiguity. The wording stated that French would be the language of education, and that anglophones wanting schooling in English would have to prove through testing that it was indeed their mother tongue. This caused widespread dissatisfaction: francophones judged the program too moderate; anglophones and cultural communities felt unjustified in submitting to an examination in order to study in English. The issue of commercial signs in French was also broached, but no clear formal requirement was drawn up. The disfavour of the two camps had direct repercussions on the 1976 provincial election, which brought the  Parti Québécois to power for the first time.

René Lévesque
Lévesque founded the Parti Québécois.
(courtesy The Canadian Press)

Charter of the French Language(Bill 101) (1977)

The René Lévesque government made the language issue its priority and enacted Bill 101, the  Charte de la langue française (Charter of the French Language), in 1977. The objective behind the charter was to allow francophone Quebecers to live and assert themselves in French. This bill followed the publication of a controversial white paper (Bill 1) the same year. Camille Laurin, the “father of Bill 101,” made it a very specific law endowing Quebec with institutions like the Conseil de la langue française and the Commission de surveillance (which became the Commission de protection de la langue française in 1984). Bill 101 stipulates that French must be the language of legislation and the courts, administration, work, and business as well as education.

Challenges to Bill 101

Although a significant number of Quebecers were very pleased with the clarity and resolve of these new measures, there was no general agreement, and the law was considered in part unconstitutional by the federal government. The Supreme Court of Canada dealt the legislation a hard blow in the case of Attorney General of Québec v. Blaikie (13 December 1979) by confirming a judgment of the Quebec Superior Court that struck down Sections 7 to 13 of the Charter of the French Language— provisions that declared French the language of legislation and the courts (Chapter III). As a result, Quebec adopted remedial legislation (An Act respecting a judgment rendered in the Supreme Court of Canada on 13 December 1979 on the language of the legislature and the courts in Québec).

Quebec was also obliged to amend the Chapter VIII clause on the language of teaching, which was judged too restrictive. Following another judgment of the Supreme Court on 26 July 1984, the “Quebec” clause — stipulating that immigrants, including those from other Canadian provinces, had to study in French unless there was a “reciprocal agreement” between Quebec and the province of origin — was replaced by the “Canada” clause, allowing children who had attended school in English in another province to continue their studies in English (see Bill 101 Case).

In December 1988, the Court judged, in the Ford case, that sections 58 and 69 of the Charter of the French Language— which required the exclusive use of French on commercial signs and in firm names — violated freedom of expression as set out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the  Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. On 22 December 1988, the newly reinstated Bourassa Liberals voted in Bill 178 (An Act to Amend the Charter of the French Language). The law required signs to be in French, though in certain exceptional cases, (depending on business size and number of employees) two languages would be allowed on condition that French predominate. The dissatisfaction was palpable: anglophones considered themselves betrayed and francophones feared the return of bilingualism. In 1993, Bill 178 was replaced by Bill 86 (An Act to Amend the Charter of the French Language, 1993), adopted 17 June. The Act reaffirmed the principle of bilingual signage with precedence given to French in public places.

Following various demonstrations by antique dealers in the Eastern Townships in the spring of 2000, the issue of signs once again came before the Supreme Court, where advocates for both sides could barely reach an agreement. The Parti Québécois, which had been in power since 1994, called the Commission of the Estates-General on the Situation and Future of the French Language in Quebec, chaired by Gérald Larose. In 2001, the Larose Commission tabled its report,French, a language for everyone. On the heels of this report, the Bernard Landry government put forward Bill 104 (An Act to Amend the Charter of the French Language), which changed the name of the language office to the Office québécois de la langue française. The Office was mandated to ensure compliance with the Charter of the French Language; it replaced the Commission de la protection de la langue française, which was dissolved. For its part, the Conseil de la langue française became the Conseil supérieur de la langue française, tasked with advising the language minister. Bill 104 also contained a clause to prevent a non-anglophone child enrolled at an anglophone private school from continuing his or her studies at a publicly funded anglophone school. This “bridging schools” clause was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2009, as it violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Future and Challenges

Keeping the French language strong and dynamic is still considered by many in Quebec to be a daily challenge. Language debates continue, arousing passions and igniting controversies. Issues surrounding language of instruction and signage remain topical. For instance, in 2012, the Parti Québécois proposed barring francophones and other non-anglophones from attending anglophone CEGEPs. The proposal met with strong opposition and the PQ was forced to backtrack on the issue. In 2015, the Court of Quebec confirmed the lawfulness of Bill 101 after the Charter of the French  once again challenged by a group of anglophone merchants who disputed fines incurred for failing to comply with sign laws. The Court of Quebec underscored that while French is the language of the majority in Quebec, it is a minority language in North America and must therefore be protected by the government.

More recently, the 2016 census figures related to language in Canada sparked discussion around the future of the French language and related policy. Although a majority in Quebec, the French-mother-tongue population is declining both in the province and in the rest of Canada as a proportion of the total population according. In 2017, Statistics Canada released a study with language predictions for Canada from 2011 to 2036.It predicted a decline in the proportion of the English- and French-mother-tongue populations, and a decrease in the percentage of the Canadian population able to speak French, both in Quebec and in official language minority communities across the country. By contrast, English in Quebec as the First Official Language Spoken is expected to increase, both in numbers and percentage, mostly due to immigration, particularly in Montreal and the Outaouais region.

The 2036 projections indicated that the mother tongue population will fall in Quebec from 79 per cent in 2011 to between 69 and 72 per cent by 2036; and for it to fall nationally from 21.3 per cent now to between 17 and 18 per cent by 2036. On Montreal Island, the French mother tongue population is projected to fall from 48 percent to 41 percent. Outside of Quebec, in the rest of Canada, it is projected to fall from 2.4 per cent in 2011 to between 1.8 per cent and 1.9 per cent in 2036.

On the other hand, the overall number of people in Quebec speaking French at home — even if it is not their mother tongue — is expected to increase. At the same time, their proportion as a percentage of the population is expected to decrease from 82 per cent to about 75 per cent.

These predictions prompted many public commentators and analysts in Quebec to call for a stronger policy approach to language protection. Recommendations included measures to grow the demographic weight of the French mother-tongue population; the obligatory francisation of all immigrants; application of Bill 101 to CEGEPs as well as small to medium sized businesses; equitable financing of institutions according to demographic weight of linguistic communities and; reinvestments into Office de la langue française  budgets.

Further Reading

  • Marc Levine, The Reconquest Of Montreal: Language Policy and Social Change in a Bilingual City (Temple University Press, 1990).

    C. Michael MacMillan, The Practice of Language Rights in Canada (UTP, 1998) et « Rights in Conflict: Contemporary Disputes over Language policy in Quebec », dans Michael D. Behiels et Matthew Hayday, Contemporary Quebec. Selected Readings and Commentaries (MQUP, 2011), 393-416.

    Marcel Martel and Martin Pâquet, Speaking up. A History of Language and Politics in Canada and Quebec (Between the Lines, 2012).