Happy Birthday, Bill 101, or How Camille Laurin inadvertently saved Canada

I led a double life in the 1960s and ‘70s, growing up in Snowdon, which was then a largely Anglophone, lower middle-class neighborhood in the Western part of Montreal. We were pretty much the only French-speaking household in the area. My mother, a Hungarian Jew, had spent her adolescence in France (long story), had acquired French citizenship which she passed on to me (Thanks, Mom), and more importantly, had developed a very strong sense of French identity, and perhaps even of French cultural superiority. I therefore attended Collège Stanislas, an educational gulag which, though it did everything it could to stifle any creative spark that might have been flickering among its pupils, did instill upon me a strong grasp of the rules of agreement of the French language. My friends at school were for the most part French Canadian. There were a few anglos – but we lived in French. I was fully attuned to French pop culture. I could probably still sing all the lyrics to the three Harmonium albums from memory. (Don’t dare me).

In my neighborhood, on the other hand, it was all English, all the time. The kids I played baseball and shinny with in MacDonald park were all Anglophones, and though they had French classes in the Anglophone schools that they attended, they could barely put together a simple French sentence, let alone master the plus-que-parfait. Now, none of them were anglophone because their ancestors were Anglo-Celts. They were Anglophones, but not English. As I make my way back up and down the block in my mind’s eye, I remember Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern and Central Europe, Italian, German, Greek and Dutch families, living in a happy English-speaking melting pot. That was the way it was back then – if you were the child of an immigrant, you were far more likely to end up in English rather than in French school, and therefore far more likely to be socialized as an anglophone. Now, part of the explanation of that fact had to do with push rather than pull factors – French schools were largely Catholic, and Jews and Protestants were not welcome there, which pushed them into Protestant schools that were, for the most part, de facto, English. But, as I will argue below, the pull factors were powerful as well.

My anglo friends from the neighborhood and my franco friends from school might just as well have been living on different planets. Bill 101, which was enacted 40 years ago today, changed all that. Immigrants to Quebec would henceforth have to send their kids to French schools. Only Anglophone schools that received not a dime of public subsidy from the provincial government were exempt. In fact, the only people who were initially allowed to send their kids to publicly funded English schools were Anglophones who had themselves been educated in English in Quebec. (That changed in later years to include those who had been educated in English elsewhere in Canada, as well).

Few laws have polarized opinion in Canada as much as 101. Francophones support it as a necessary tool to protect the French language from erosion, while many Anglophones, both within Quebec and outside of it, see it as an ignoble attack on basic civil rights.

The point I want to make in the present post however is that Canadians should celebrate the law because it may very well have saved Canada. Let me explain.

Anyone who travels a bit knows just how potent an attractive force English exercises in the world today. As people interact to a greater degree than ever before because of increased trade, improved communications, and cheaper and more efficient transportation, there is a need for a language that can serve to bridge the linguistic gulfs that would otherwise exist between people of diverse mother tongues. For all sorts of reasons, English has established itself, for the time being, as that language. There is a huge incentive to learn English everywhere in the world, from Beijing to Sao Paulo, from Moscow to, well, Quebec! Want to make a decent living and travel the world at the same time? Take up ESL teaching!

The global prominence of English generates a pretty recognizable set of incentives. If you are born as a native English-speaker, you have, in essence, won the lottery. You can just sit back and relax while others rush to learn your language (imperfectly, perhaps, which will always give you a slight advantage in various competitive forums). You don’t really have to learn anyone else’s language. You can spend the time and resources you might have spent doing other productive things. Again, advantage, English-speaker! English speakers who learn other languages in spite of this are, to coin a phrase, linguistically supererogatory. If you are not born with English in your back pocket, however, there is a massive incentive to acquire it. And that incentive becomes greater for everyone else once you’ve learned the language, because you have added yet another person to the total sum of people that others can communicate with if they learn English! Anyone who has ever been part of a linguistically diverse group will have experienced just how quickly the group defaults to English in order to facilitate communication. Any speaker of a “smaller” language will have experienced just how quickly that happens whenever an Anglophone happens to find herself in a conversational group, even when the majority is more comfortable in the smaller language.

What’s true in the world today is massively true in North America. There are well over 300 million native speakers of English on this continent. In a regime of linguistic laissez faire, it just makes sense that immigrants would choose to educate their kids in the dominant language.

Native speakers of smaller languages confronted with the attractive force of English find themselves in a difficult situation. Given the very strong link that exists in the world today between language and identity, most of them would rather that their kids be educated in their language, and that they be able to participate in that language in a vital and thriving public sphere. But they are worried that many others will succumb to the lure of the larger, and all things equal more attractive language. You need a critical mass of speakers in order to sustain a thriving economic, political, and cultural sphere, and the worry is that if too many people defect, that critical mass will no longer be there. So the parent speaking a “smaller” language in a laissez faire linguistic environment faces an assurance problem: how can she be sure that enough people will make the choice that sustains the language? And in the absence of such an assurance, even if the preference of the parent is to educate her children in her language, doesn’t it make sense to jump linguistic ship first in order to avoid placing her kids in a highly disadvantaged linguistic situation?

The Belgian philosopher Philippe Van Parijs has probably done most in recent years to elucidate problems of this kind. His prescription for the speakers of the smaller language of Europe is to (in his words), to “grab a territory”. What he means by that is that if the speakers of a smaller language can gain control over institutions on the territory on which they constitute a majority (even if that territory and the total number of speakers on it is relatively small), they can forestall the attractive effects of the larger language (be it English, or some locally dominant language).

Now, the idea of grabbing a territory is ambiguous. It can for a threatened linguistic group mean seceding from whatever larger political unit one is a part of, and establishing political sovereignty over the territory in which one’s language is spoken by a majority. Or it can mean enacting laws over that territory which, even in the absence of full sovereignty, immunize the smaller language from the full effect of the sociolinguistic drift that tends to favour larger languages in general, and English in particular.

Back to Quebec. The Charter of the French language is an instantiation of the second of the two construals of the Van Parijsian injunction. It is an answer to the question: “how might Quebec protect the French language from the attractive force of English whilst remaining within Canadian political space?”. To the extent that it represents an effective answer to that question, it is emphatically not a step in the direction of sovereignty. It is rather a demonstration of the fact that continued participation in the Canadian federation (with all the benefits that that participation entails) is compatible with at least one of the principal aspirations of people living in Quebec, that of being able to establish the conditions for the flourishing of a vital francophone public sphere here.

I don’t think there is any doubt that the language Charter has been effective. Immigrants now happily send their kids to French public schools, and those kids emerge from these schools bi- or even trilingual. (Immigrants tend to hang on to the language of their country of origin for a generation or two, and they tend to pick up English as well just be lending an ear to the broader Anglophone culture of North America). The assurance problems that Francophone parents find themselves in is moreover solved by the self-binding mechanisms inscribed in the law. But the degree to which the law is effective is perhaps best displayed by the measures that Anglophones in Quebec now take to ensure that their kids are (unlike the Anglophone kids that I was surrounded by in my old ‘hood) fluent in French. A growing number of anglos who in virtue of the language law’s provisions could send their kids to English schools choose not to, and even those who do are now in effect sending their kids to immersion schools. There are very few, if any schools left in Quebec from which it is possible to emerge without at least functional French. Clearly, this would not be happening had Anglo-Quebeckers not come to the conclusion that French was in Quebec a language worth learning, and worth educating their children in. As I mentioned above, there are most definitely supererogatory anglos who learn French out of a sense of duty, or out of an ethically admirable sense that they ought to reach out to Quebec and Canada’s francophone communities, but we would not see the big numbers we are seeing were the cost-benefit analysis not also to incline anglos in the direction of French.

The result is a linguistic landscape that is immeasurably superior to the one in which I grew up. Not perfect – far from it, and I will be devoting a later post to the challenges that our present set of laws will have to face in the years to come. But better. The situation of French is pretty stable (unless one decides, as some language alarmists have done in recent years, that the relevant indicator to assess the health of the French language is no longer the capacity to speak French and the willingness to use it in the public sphere, but rather the use of French as the language of the home), and Anglophones are no longer confined to the linguistic ghetto that they were in when I was growing up. They are in fact today the most bilingual linguistic community in the country!

This has been a very long set-up to a claim that can be expressed quite briefly. There have been two sovereignty referenda in my lifetime in Quebec. The first wasn’t that close, but it wasn’t that not close, either. On the first occasion in which Quebeckers were asked whether they wanted to become a sovereign country, 40% answered “yes”. The second time, it was very close indeed (though how close it would have been had the question been clearer is anyone’s guess). Now, imagine an alternate Canada in which the Supreme Court roundly rejected the very idea of limiting the freedom of choice of the citizens of Quebec in the linguistic arena. Imagine a referendum having been launched in the face of the rejection by the highest court in the land of the entirety of the language law. In such circumstances, I think it is not an enormous leap to think that Quebeckers would have been inclined to go for the first, rather than for the second of the construals of the “grab a territory” idea. In the face of the refusal by central Canadian institutions to allow for the reconciliation of membership in the Canadian federation and of policies protecting French somewhat from the attractive force of English, a sufficient number of voters would probably have been inclined to go for the first of these construals, namely the setting up of state borders around the territory, if not in the first referendum, then almost certainly in the second.

As a federalist, I am happy that things did not shake out that way. I am happy that, though it did nip and cut away at the aspects of the law that it deemed disproportionate relative to the objective of protecting the French language, the court did not reject the core of the law. (As a liberal, I am also happy that the law has been significantly shorn of those elements that were deemed to infringe rights to too great a degree). To the extent that they still see Quebec as an important part of the Canadian family, I suggest that federalists outside of Quebec (and federalists inside Quebec who are still grumbling) should therefore celebrate the 40th anniversary of a law that, perhaps inadvertently, may very well have saved Canada.


Happy Birthday, Bill 101, or How Camille Laurin inadvertently saved Canada — 7 Comments

  1. Interesting read, and I agree with a lot of what is said here. However, two points I find problematic.
    1. You say “Immigrants now happily send their kids to French public schools”. As an immigrant myself, I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement. I would happily send my kids to a bilingual school. I would happily send my kids to a french school that also effectively teaches english as a second language (most certainly NOT the case with public–or private–french schools in Montreal). I very reluctantly and unhappily send my kids to french school (in our upper middle class, hipster neighborhood), where they get 50 minutes of english a week, taught by a poorly prepared and undedicated teacher who half the time just sits the kids to watch half a movie in english (with frenh subtitles). And I am not the only one who doesn’t happily send their kids to french public school. In fact, this is the case with most (upper middle class but also lower middle class, in very different neighborhoods) immigrants I know and have spoken to.
    2. You say “it is not an enormous leap to think that Quebeckers would have been incline to go for the first [secession]” if law 101 didn’t exist. This is a counterfactual, and as such, it is an enormous leap. Realities would be different all around without law 101, and simply asserting that no-law-101 would have changed the result of the referendum is a huge leap. Maybe there wouldn’t have been a referendum in the first place. Maybe there would have been war (not really, this is Canada after all). The point is: Who knows??? So if this is the main point of defense for law 101, it is a rather weak and unconvincing one.

    • Your first criticism is fair, but I think you’re dismissing the use of the counterfactual claim a bit too quickly. Weinstock’s argument consists in establishing a plausible causal connection between Bill 101 and failed referenda. If you’re saying that counterfactuals can’t be used because no one can know what other things might change, then it seems to me that the implication of this is that you can’t attempt to make causal claims about world events. Any claim that event A caused and/or led to result B implies that without event A, result B would not have obtained. That is, a causal claim about A and B implies that the inverse counterfactual is true. If your criticism is sound, then causal claims in general must be enormous leaps.

  2. Related to this, I’d be interested to know if Prof. Weinstock has seen John Walker’s documentary, “Quebec, My Country, Mon Pays”, and if so, how he reacted to its portrayal of the Anglophone Quebecer exodus that began in the 1970s. I saw its Vancouver premiere this past winter, and a BC colleague and friend who left Quebec after graduating from McGill in the ’70s thought that it accurately captured the atmosphere that led him to leave and never return.

    I grew up in southern Ontario, but have lived in Alberta and BC since 1977. So I had my schooling long before French immersion was a widely available option. My one visit to Quebec was when my parents took me to Expo 67 for a week or so. Like many of my generation in English Canada, rather than feeling any hostility, we’re more puzzled by Quebec than anything else. That’s puzzlement mingled with some impatience at how much of the national bandwidth its dramas take up from time to time. If more of us were honest about this, we’d probably admit that it’s nice to have Quebec as such an obvious, in-your-face marker of difference to set against the place below the border. I suspect that for many liberally-inclined English Canadians, the analogy is this: Quebec is like an exotic European car that we didn’t ask for, but it came with the house. It always seems to be in the shop, but the mechanic can never quite figure out what’s wrong, although his bills keep coming. But we can’t imagine getting rid of it, because having it makes us feel secretly superior to our white trash neighbour whose Hummer (adorned with gun rack & Confederate flag stickers) is idling in the driveway next door.

    When I watched Walker’s film, it partly felt like I was seeing one more version of the torrent of increasingly familiar refugee experience stories. If there was a revelation for me, it was the clear message that Anglophone Quebecers are never accepted by the majority, no matter how bilingual and culturally fluent they become. And this means that the exodus hasn’t ended, because the offspring of those who didn’t leave earlier are growing up to encounter ceilings and walls that limit their professional and personal growth. That part of the film particularly hit home for my friend, because he’s watching his 20-something Montreal nephews hitting the barriers of non-acceptance as they try to establish their careers.

  3. There are a number of statements in this article that could easily be challenged. There are a lot of factors involved in Quebec’s history over the past 40 years, and narrow interpretations often provide nice conclusions, but they can be delusional. I won’t deal with each, but here are a few…
    1) the suggestion that those born into an English-speaking family have an advantage because they don’t have to learn another language implies that learning another language is a disadvantage. I doubt that multilingual Europeans would agree. Many Europeans learn English as a second language quite easily and end up having a huge advantage over unilingual Anglophones.
    2) I know numerous families who live in some French areas (e.g., Laval) with numerous generations in the family whose members simply can’t put an English sentence together. I remember speaking with one family and they told me that they really wanted to send their kids to an English school. They toyed with the idea until they realized that would be “illegal” and impossible. How can that possibly be a benefit to them? One of the results of Bill 101 is the reduction of the opportunities for Francophones to pick up English. Is that really a great accomplishment?
    3) Your reference to over 300 million English speakers in North America suggests you are unfamliar with the Spanish “fact” and influence in the U.S. It’s big. Real big. Did you know that election ballots now have to be in Spanish in many areas? The sooner we all learn Spanish, the better.
    4) You are a federalist now? I thought I remember reading in a few of your past posts that you would have voted “oui” in 1980, that you were a PQ supporter in the past and that you have voted for the QS in recent elections (the QS being even more hardcore separatist than the PQ). Glad to hear that you have abandoned the separatist mantra. Regarding the questions in the referendum of 1995, there is a reason why the question was not clear. The PQ’s surveys and research indicated that a blunt and direct question that was crystal clear (such as the one the British used in the recent Brexit referendum) would not generate the results that the PQ wanted. They were much more likely to attract the “soft separatists” if they used a question that refered to negotiations over a span of a year, and then the tabling of a bill, etc. rather than saying “Do you want Quebec to separate from Canada and become an independent country? Yes or no? The suggestion that such a question would have generated a majority “oui” response is not realistic, and the entire PQ leadership knew that.
    5) In the same way that you suggest that Bill 101 saved Canada, you could also suggest that the SCC reference case in 1981 saved Canada since it led to negotiations which led to the adoption in the Constitution of the “notwithstanding” clause (about which you could also make the claim), which the PQ have used many times, including when they brought in the Bill (around 1987?) to make English signs on the streets illegal.

    While I could understand the protection of the language necessitating a law that requires the French translation to every non-French sign, but not vice versa, the wholesale withdrawal of some basic rights in free speech and education, etc. was, and is, excessive. Even Levesque wrote in his memoirs that he regretted having to use the law as a crutch. My recollection was that he hoped it would be temporary. Ha!

    Language debates in Quebec are complex, never end, and are loaded with hyperbole.

  4. Camille Laurin and his cohorts wanted Quebec to separate and break up Canada. “Saving” Canada was not their objective. If it were possible to suggest that a consequence of Bill 101 was the “saving” of Canada (and I think it is a rather cheeky and specious argument), Camille Laurin would be profoundly disappointed and would certainly see no reason to celebrate. Perhaps he might even agitate for its repeal! It is ironic that the author is suggesting that the victims of the discriminatory law should find cause for celebration in the instruments of discrimination that were used against them. What’s next? Which other victims of historic discrimination will find some reason to justify their having the short end of the stick?

    • Two things:

      1) Laurin himself, shortly before his death in 1999, outright admitted that Bill 101 ended up hurting the separatist cause:

      “One consequence, unintended by the bill’s authors, is that it ultimately served the federalist cause in Quebec, as its sweeping assertion of French predominance robbed the sovereignist movement of its most compelling argument for separation from “English” Canada.

      Camille Laurin acknowledged as much before his death in 1999, as did Curzi this week.
      “It certainly deprived the movement of an argument, if not necessarily the real basis of the cause,” he said. “But for sure it didn’t help.”


      2) And overlooked in this (and for that matter, most) debates about Bill 101 is the fate of Francophones outside Quebec. Anglos across Canada support the rights of the Anglo-Quebecois, and rightly so, but Francophones in other provinces have repeatedly had to go to court to get their own rights confirmed, and often with considerable public backlash.

      So what about them?

      Why is it apparently okay to protect the minority official language in Quebec, but not the minority official language outside it? I have never been able to find a convincing argument for this.

      • As to No. 2, a partial answer might be that the English minority inside was always a sizeable one, so that it had enough critical mass to “sustain” itself, with its own schools, etc. French minority populations outside Quebec might represent a much smaller fraction of the local population. This might make it relatively more expensive to meet their minority needs. And since there are fewer of them, they are easier to ignore. I am merely speculating.

        Support does turn up in unexpected (to me) places. We saw a French elementary school near Nanaimo.