In the early 1960s, Canada’s Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism warned that while Canadians might not be fully conscious of it, their nation was perhaps passing through its greatest crisis. At the time, the commission observed that the relations between English and French Canadians had so seriously deteriorated that their very will to live together was in jeopardy. Underlying these concerns were fears about the future of the French language in Canada, the survival of which certain demographers warned was at risk in a predominantly English-speaking country and continent.
In seeking measures to establish an equal partnership between the country’s English- and French-speakers, the commission looked into the existing state of English-French bilingualism and biculturalism. Ultimately, what emerged from the commission’s deliberations was the enactment of the country’s Official Languages Act in 1969 and a national policy on multiculturalism in 1971. The act required that, where the numbers warranted, Canada’s central government ensure that services be made available in both French and English. It also provided legal and financial support for official language-minority institutions—that is, for the French-speaking population outside the majority Francophone province of Quebec and English-speaking inhabitants of that province.
Specifically, the Official Languages Act declared French and English to be the country’s official languages in all matters relating to the Parliament and the Government of Canada, equal in status with equal rights and privileges regarding their use. The act expanded the scope of the 1867 founding constitutional guarantee in this regard by extending the service to all federal institutions, including departments, agencies and Crown corporations along with quasi-judicial and administrative bodies. It created the office of the Commissioner of Official Languages to oversee the implementation of the act and ensure federal government compliance with it. In 1988, the act was amended and, via Part VII (section 41), committed the federal government of Canada to enhance the vitality of the English and French language minority communities in Canada and support and assist their development.
The Politics of Language in Quebec
Canada’s then-prime minister, Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, subsequently stated that there could be legislation defining official languages but not official cultures. However, what came to be known as the Trudeau vision of “multiculturalism within a bilingual framework” met with significant disapproval from the government of Quebec and several of the province’s leading thinkers. In 1971, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa claimed that the federal government’s policy was based on a questionable dissociation of culture from language. By consequence, the provincial government would take on the role of the principal defender of the French language and culture within its jurisdiction.
As a response to the federal Official Languages Act, in 1974, the Quebec government adopted legislation, known as Bill 22, making French the province’s sole official language. The bill required that all public institutions had to address the public administration in French; made French the official language of contracts; and called upon corporations to have a French name, to advertise primarily in French in Quebec and secure a certificate demonstrating that the business could operate in French and address its employees in that language. Although the bill required the use of French in multiple areas, it generally allowed for the use of English. While not legally in conflict with the federal languages act, it undoubtedly ran counter to the spirit of the act.
Its most controversial provision was a restriction on access for immigrant children to the province’s English-language schools. Prior to the enactment of Bill 22, the vast majority of Quebec newcomers sent their children to English-language schools, raising a legitimate concern among many Quebec Francophones about the continued attraction and status of the French language. Ultimately, therefore, the restrictions were aimed at directing the children of newcomers to the province’s French-language elementary and secondary schools.
The legislation proved highly unpopular with the province’s English-language population, most of whom were convinced that it constituted a violation of their rights. At the same time, many Quebec Francophones were convinced that the measures had not gone far enough in protecting the French language.
Not surprisingly, the language issue subsequently moved to the very center of the 1976 provincial election campaign in Quebec. Organized political movements in favor of Quebec independence had already emerged in the mid-1960s, partly in response to growing anxieties about the future of the French language. In 1976, however, for the first time in the province’s history, Quebecers elected a majority government committed to the goal of independence and separation from Canada. Thereafter, the mix of language and identity politics became a potentially lethal combination in Quebec provincial elections.
Shortly after the 1976 election, the government led by the Parti Quebecois introduced a Charter of the French Language, known as Bill 101, with more-restrictive measures on access to the province’s English-language schools. It also introduced perhaps the most controversial provision to date of Quebec’s language legislation, requiring that all exterior commercial signs be in the French language only, in an effort to make the province’s public face, its so-called visage linguistique, French. In so doing, the law’s architects claimed a message was sent to all Quebecers that French would be the common language of public interaction and that the business of the day should be conducted in that language.
This idea became a sort of accepted truth for many Francophones even in the absence of any meaningful evidence in support of the claim that French-only commercial signs would substantially modify the language spoken in public by non-French-speakers. At best, the indirect proof for any such impact was offered by the reaction of many Anglophone Quebecers, who contended that the provision resulted in the declining public use of English.
Logically, if Quebec’s language legislation proved to be effective, insecurities about the survival and sustainability of French-language use would presumably diminish. But this logic would be counterproductive for advocates of independence, for it risked undercutting the justification for their ultimate goal. Not surprisingly, then, in the decades that followed, much of the intellectual and political leadership of the independence movement argued that the French language was still not making enough progress, although to make this case the very notion of progress needed to be redefined. Both the Parti Quebecois and the federalist Liberal provincial governments endorsed the notion that French must be the common language of public life, even if such a goal was clearly elusive in parts of the province with a significant minority of English-speakers.
A 1980 Quebec referendum subsequently asked the population to give the government a mandate to negotiate sovereignty while securing an association with the rest of Canada. Those supporting sovereignty-association, as the proposal was known, strongly suggested that the future of the French language was at stake in the referendum. In so doing they cultivated the idea that those Quebecers genuinely concerned with the future of French must favor independence for Quebec. Some 40 percent of Quebecers voted in favor of sovereignty-association, a reality that could not be ignored by Canadian federalists. Soon after the referendum, Trudeau moved to repatriate the Constitution from Great Britain with an amending formula and introduced a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Adopted in 1982, the charter reinforced protections for the country’s language minorities. However, because the Quebec government was not a signatory to the constitution, Premier Rene Levesque maintained that the province had been purposely excluded from what came to be described as a backroom deal between Trudeau and the provincial premiers in the rest of the country.
Since the mid-1980s, with a view to bringing Quebec into the constitutional fold, federal and provincial politicians sought a formula to constitutionally recognize the province’s distinct character as a majority French-language province in a predominantly English-language country and continent. Efforts to extend such recognition proved unsuccessful, however, and the failures were held up in Quebec as evidence that the rest of Canada refused to acknowledge the specific characteristics of Quebec society and thereby rejected its identity. Supporters of Quebec independence proclaimed that English-speaking Canada lacked empathy when it came to the dire threat to the French language, a view increasingly shared by many of Quebec’s Francophone federalists.
Meanwhile, since the adoption of Bill 101, many English-speaking Quebecers remained quite irate about the law’s commercial signs provision, which gave rise to a sense of exclusion and a growing feeling of alienation from Quebec society. Some Anglophone Quebec merchants launched a court challenge to the provision on the basis that it violated their freedom of expression. The December 1988 ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada argued that, although there was a rational connection between protecting the French language and assuring that the reality of Quebec society is communicated through the visage linguistique, requiring the exclusive use of French on signs to do so was not justified. The ruling pointed to a possible compromise solution, whereby exterior commercial signs could be predominantly French without excluding the English language. Although many English-speaking Quebecers appeared open to compromise, the day after the decision, tens of thousands of angry Francophone Quebecers marched in the streets demanding that the government maintain the status quo.
Seeing it as a matter of political survival, Bourassa, Quebec’s federalist premier, declared that to preserve social peace he would use an emergency clause available in the rights Charter to suspend freedom of expression and maintain unilingual commercial signs. One of the many impacts of this decision was to increase the salience of the English language as part of the identity of Anglophone Quebecers. Four Quebec Anglophone parliamentarians resigned in protest over the premier’s decision, and in the 1989 provincial election an equivalent number of seats went to an Anglophone protest party. Despite the loss of support, the provincial Liberals proved able to form the government with a majority of seats in the 1989 election. In 1993, the Liberals adopted legislation that permitted a return to English on commercial signs, provided that it was markedly smaller than the French.
In 1995, with Quebec Francophones feeling increasingly rejected by the rest of Canada, advocates of independence nearly won another referendum calling for sovereignty with partnership. Still, the narrow loss proved to be a high-water mark for sovereignty advocates, as it has proved very difficult to recapture the same level of enthusiasm for this option since then.
The Chimera of Bilingualism
While Quebec has struggled with the mix of identity and language politics, the parallel language debate playing out in the rest of the country revolved around the issue of bilingualism. Some 70 percent of Canadians regard bilingualism as a defining feature of their country, and nearly three in four are in favor of bilingualism as a policy for Canada. Yet while Anglophones think Canada is a bilingual country, only 30 percent agree that bilingualism keeps the country united, compared with 43 percent of allophones—persons whose first language is neither English nor French—and 63 percent of the country’s Francophones.
Meanwhile, despite considerable investment and incentives by the Canadian government to promote the acquisition by Anglophones of French as a second language, some four decades following the introduction of the policy of official languages it would be difficult to contend that there has been meaningful growth in the degree of bilingualism by non-Francophones outside of Quebec. Indeed, there remains a considerable gap between public support for the principle of bilingualism and the extent to which the population knows both English and French.
Canada made some initial progress in the share of persons able to speak both official languages. In 1961, some 12.2 percent of the population reported knowledge of English and French. This rose to 16.2 percent in 1986, and then to 17.4 percent in 2006 and 17.5 percent in 2011; roughly 5.8 million Canadians reported being able to conduct a conversation in both of the country’s official languages.
Nevertheless, there were vast differences in rates of bilingualism across, and within, language groups in Canada. In 2011, nearly 45 percent of Francophones nationwide reported knowledge of English, compared with 43 percent in 2001. But the internal breakdown—over 90 percent of Francophones outside of Quebec report knowledge of English and a significant percentage use the language at home, compared to 36 percent of Quebec Francophones who report knowledge of English—is evidence that ongoing concerns for the vitality of French outside Quebec are legitimate.
By contrast, some 9 percent of Anglophone Canadians—and only 7.1 percent of Anglophones residing outside of Quebec—claimed knowledge of French in 2011. However, nearly two-thirds of Anglophones in Quebec reported an ability to speak French, up tremendously from 1961, when it was closer to one-third. In 2011, analysts from the country’s national statistical agency claimed that “the increase of the bilingual population was mainly a result of the growing share of Quebecers who reported being able to conduct a conversation in French and English.”
Federal government officials have often acknowledged that there has been insufficient progress in the promotion of French second language knowledge among English Canadians outside of Quebec. The authors of the 2002 federal government Action Plan on Official Languages observed that “Canada has fewer bilingual people than does Britain, which ranks lowest among the European countries for second-language skills.”
That same plan proposed to “double the proportion of secondary school graduates with a functional knowledge of their second official language” by 2013; in 2001, the proportion of bilingual Francophones and Anglophones in the 15-19 age group was around 24 percent. Describing the objective as “quite realistic,” the federal government proposed to offer assistance to the provinces and territories to achieve it.
Such goals, however, do not sufficiently consider the degree of unevenness in the opportunity to use French across the regions of the country as a function of the concentration of Francophones in various parts of Canada. Regrettably, the 2011 census revealed that little to no progress had been made outside Quebec in the level of knowledge of French among Anglophone youth.
An Uneasy Status Quo
While Canada can describe itself as de jure bilingual, where bilingualism is defined as the provision of services by the federal government in English and French, it is much less clear whether it would qualify as de facto bilingual if the barometer for measuring such status was the population’s degree of knowledge of the two official languages. It might be argued that it is the degree of bilingualism in Quebec that permits Canada to claim it is a bilingual country. Paradoxically, in official discourse, Quebec officials often deny that the province is de jure bilingual.
And despite their view that Canada is a bilingual country, there is no question that an important number of Canadians, in both Quebec and the rest of Canada, have mixed feelings about bilingualism. A widely accepted truth among Canada’s Francophones is that the French language is threatened not only on the continent and in the country, but also across the predominantly French-language province of Quebec. Some 80 percent of Francophones agree that the French language is threatened in the majority French-language province, a view held by one in four Anglophones both inside and outside the province. The status of the French language in the culturally diverse city of Montreal has become the object of particular concern among much of Quebec’s Francophone political and intellectual elite. Quebecers are frequently reminded that, because of the arrival of immigrants on the island of Montreal, Francophones will soon be a minority on that territory and thus incapable of getting non-Francophones to acquire the French language.
The indirect, though false, suggestion is that the non-Francophones share a common language as they constitute a majority. That is enough to stoke existing anxiety about French in Montreal and ideally generate political capital for those who practice the politics of fear. Provincial bureaucrats have been increasingly active in recent years in monitoring the presence of English on commercial signs and the degree to which merchants use English in their interaction with the public. Montreal is officially decreed a Francophone city even though it is home to the country’s largest bilingual population. Still there is fear among the elite that the very mention that Montreal is bilingual will send the wrong message to newcomers that English is somehow equal to French—the same logic that guided the policy on commercial signs. An October 2013 survey of Montrealers reveals that the message is not working, as two-thirds of those polled regard the city as bilingual before it is Francophone. In fact it is best described as both.
The 2014 Quebec provincial election saw the return to power of the federalist Liberals under a premier, Philippe Couillard, who positively evoked the “b-word”—that is, bilingualism—in the televised leadership debate. His landslide victory may be a testimony that while Francophones remain concerned about the French language, preying on their fears for political and electoral gain may not be in vogue at this time. Clearly, the idea that independence is the solution to the challenges encountered by the French language no longer resonates with an electorate that, at least for now, seems to find the option less and less appealing. In the minds of Quebecers and most other Canadians, concerns over the economy trump preoccupations with identity.
Ultimately, the upshot of Canada’s policy of official languages—the so-called Trudeau vision—has been the emergence of a bilingual elite in the country. The one in six Canadians who speak both English and French are part of this elite, a group that cannot be defined by income nor by ethnicity, but more so by geography: They are largely concentrated in Quebec (57 percent), Ontario (24 percent) and New Brunswick (4 percent)—that is, parts of the country where there are better opportunities for people to interact in both official languages. Some 56 percent of its members are Francophone, 30 percent Anglophone and 14 percent allophone. It is this group that gives the impression that the country is bilingual.
It is simply not realistic to expect knowledge of English and French to be a mass phenomenon. This means that the bilingual elite, and especially its non-Francophone members, have a greater role in supporting the unity of the country, as they constitute a bridge across what for many remains a powerful linguistic divide.
Dr. Jack Jedwab is executive vice president of the Association for Canadian Studies and the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration. He co-edited the publication “Life After Forty: Official Languages Policy in Canada” for the Queen’s Policy Studies Series of McGill-Queen’s University Press (2011). His most recent anthology is entitled “The Multiculturalism Question: Debating Identity in 21st Century Canada” (2014). He is currently chair of Canada’s National Metropolis Conference on Immigration and Integration.
Photo: Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, 1980, Montreal, Quebec (photo by Wikimedia user chiloa licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Uported license).