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Language matters

Jessica Squires

February 2, 2012

Recently the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) denounced the continued downsizing of federal government language training programs. Forcing departments and public servants to use private language schools will make language training more expensive while reducing its quality; but this is only the tip of the iceberg.

To really understand language in Canada, and the importance of language in Quebec as well, we need to understand where official bilingualism came from.

The roots of Quebec oppression

For centuries, the mostly French-speaking population of Quebec was a pool of cheap labour, its domestic ruling class consisting of clergy and landlords acting as toady go-betweens for big capitalism. While much (although not all) of this economic repression has been softened, largely through resistance on the part of Quebeckers, it has evolved into a more politically-focused oppression of discrimination and scapegoating, based on the dominance of the federal state and the needs of Canadian capital. Official bilingualism has a lot of benefits, but it is still a part of the official fabric of colonial control over Quebec and French-speaking communities outside Quebec.


Official bilingualism and the 1969 Official Languages Act are generally considered to be part of the legacy of Pierre Elliot Trudeau. At the time only nine per cent of federal public service jobs were occupied by francophones. Almost overnight, these workers had the right to work in their first language—when, to date, all of their transactions at work had been with anglophones who insist on using English. This reform took place at a time when the right to work in French (with a focus on large private businesses) was a key demand of unions in Quebec, not yet won.

Today, the right of language of work enshrined in the Official Languages Act is one of only a handful of official policies that actually work to the benefit of workers above managers: managers are required to manage employees in the language of the employee’s preference. When conservative groups complain of the burden of bilingualism, this is often the source of the complaining.

But Trudeau was not acting out of idealistic or pro-worker motives. Social movements were on the rise, and a struggle for independence in Quebec had not only taken deep roots but was enjoying support from movements in the rest of Canada.

Trudeau feared this new situation, and was looking for any way to neutralize it. Official bilingualism was a genius move: it quieted most of the more moderate supporters of Quebec self-determination in the rest of Canada, and reduced Quebec’s complaints to a mere question of language. Official languages policy was part of an attempt to win consent, in a Gramscian sense, from a significant majority of people in order to hobble the nascent separatist movement in Quebec.

The other part of Trudeau’s legacy for Quebec was the War Measures Act. The coercion flip-side of the consent coin, Trudeau exposed his true intentions for Quebec—and for French—in the process, renewing both national oppression and resistance.


The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s was, in large part, the result of industrialization. So it is no surprise that many of its ideas were based in working-class needs and demands. The most important of these is the right to work in French, but the question of language, with its organic links to identity and culture, is one of the main forms national resistance takes.

Official bilingualism itself is not viewed with hostility in Quebec; but there are several side-effects of official bilingualism which have bred resentment, because paradoxically, they erode Quebec’s ability to protect French.

It is no accident that the Parti Québecois took power a few years after the official bilingualism policy—the first time an independentist government had taken power in Quebec.The first side-effect was the exclusion of unilingual francophones from many designated-bilingual federal public service jobs.

The second was the 1982 introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—another example of Trudeau’s legacy. The Charter eroded the provisions of Quebec’s Bill 101, its Charter of the French Language, to protect French as “the language of Government and the Law, as well as the normal and everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business.”

The basis for this conflict is the abstract symmetry established in official bilingualism between the English-speaking minority in Quebec and the French-speaking minorities elsewhere. In fact, while Francophones outside Quebec have been marginalized and experience rapid assimilation, anglophone Quebeckers are a thriving community, with universities, hospitals and many other institutions, always able to attract newcomers in large numbers.

After the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982, which was itself done in a manner designed to control Quebec, further erosion of Bill 101 came through the Supreme Court of Canada. Successive rulings eroded Bill 101’s ability to protect French as the language of instruction and of business.

Although Quebec’s language laws regime is much more generous towards anglophones in Quebec than is official policy toward francophone minority populations in other provinces, mainstream media attacks on “the language police” and accusing Quebec of xenophobia continue.

Today, French in Quebec is in a state of slow but steady decline. It may not be solely because of federal policies (the impact of neoliberal economics are major factors); but it is a reality, which is why it is now back in the public eye as an issue deserving of attention.

The PQ is now calling for the provisions of Bill 101 to apply to Cégep instruction. But legislating French as the language of instruction in post-secondary institutions will only result in a segregation of those able to afford it into privately-run Cégeps and to schools outside Quebec—effectively creating two-tiered language policy.

If you want to protect French, you have to do it where most people spend most of their lives: in workplaces.

That was the original purpose of Bill 101. Québec solidaire, the left-wing independentist party of Quebec—a party that also stands for social justice, feminism, ecology, and pluralism—has made this essential element its key demand in the arena of language rights.

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