Forty years ago, in the dying days of August 1977, the Quebec government passed the language law that turned Quebec into an officially unilingual province in an officially bilingual country. It was a profound change to the Canadian linguistic landscape.
The fundamentals of Bill 101 were etched in stone. Quebec had to be as French as Ontario was English. That meant the only officially recognized language of Quebec’s National Assembly, courts, municipalities, and business was going to be French. The original bill banned English on outdoor signage.
Immigrants who had come primarily to Montreal had, for years, eagerly enrolled their children in English schools because speaking English was the currency of success. French Quebecers despised that. They knew more and more English-speaking residents would weaken the French majority. Bill 101 fixed that for good. How it was done was bolder than anyone thought possible.
All newcomers to Quebec, even English-speaking ones (anglophones), could only send their children to French schools. The shocker was how that provision even included Canadians from other provinces unless one of their parents had attended an English school in Quebec.
Forty years after the language law, many anglophone Quebecers still see it as draconian and mean-spirited. It was those harsh and irreconcilable conclusions that drove tens of thousands of anglophones out of Quebec. They left rather than accept what they saw as second class status.
In 1977, journalists joked that the government should have called the language law “Bill 401” instead of 101 since so many anglophone Quebecers hightailed their way down the highway.
The fear and loathing among English-speaking Quebecers was volcanic. After any revolutionary change, there is always that feeling that the winners won on the backs of the losers and 40 years ago, many of the people who stayed risked drowning in the poison which that collective fear and loathing inevitably brought on.
What was equally obvious in 1977 was how thrilled French Quebecers were. Just seeing how upset the English-speakers were, made their day. It was payback time.
As history tells us, from the time of the conquest on the Plains of Abraham, French Quebecers felt cheated. They were the ones who felt second class. As Canada developed, French Quebecers, especially in Montreal, knew their best chance for a job meant having to speak English. Then they often had to work in English. The bosses were English and anglophones working next to them too often made more money.
The English-speaking minority in Quebec had dominated all aspects of commercial life – seemingly forever. The French ran the Catholic Church and its hospitals, the courts and the National Assembly. Priests, lawyers, doctors and politicians could speak French in the workplace. Hardly anyone else could.
French-speaking pilots were not permitted to land their planes in French; not even at Quebec airports; not even with French-speaking air traffic controllers. That humiliation became a burning election issue in 1976. It helped propel René Lévesque and the separatist Parti Québécois to power.
For years, even Canadian military bases in Quebec had English as the dominant language. Training manuals were often in English only and, once again, unilingual English-speaking soldiers forced their language on the French majority.
Anglophone reporters who were lucky enough to be at the National Assembly during this amazing period would likely all recall how our francophone colleagues also jumped for joy. One French-speaking reporter in particular couldn’t restrain his delight with the Anglos being put in their place.
For weeks after the language law was tabled, that reporter held the legislation in his hand. When he saw an English-speaking colleague, he would wave Bill 101 under their nose and gleefully ask, “It hurts, doesn’t it?” Talk about payback time. Every Quebecer had a story.
That reporter’s father was a labourer in one of Quebec’s typical pulp and paper towns. He grew up in a company-owned tarpapered house. He saw the anglophone bosses living in the big houses on the hill. He saw the bosses’ big cars and their big boats. He grew up hearing the playful sounds of English-speaking kids water-skiing in the summer before heading back to their enclaved English schools.
If I know anything 40 years later, I know that Quebec’s language law made that Quebecer’s children and grandchildren a lot happier than he was.