Bill 101: A gift we never expected
Once branded racist, it's put Quebec at ease, and may have saved Canada
BENOIT AUBIN | August 13, 2007 |
Now that the initial, visceral resentment has morphed into indifference and oblivion, maybe someone will suggest erecting a monument along Bay Street to show gratitude for the man who triggered a Marshall Plan to boost Toronto's economy 30 years ago: Camille Laurin.
A Quebec nationalist, a separatist cabinet minister, and a psychiatrist with an attitude(he dyed his hair jet black, smoked his Buckinghams pinched between the thumb and the index finger of his upturned palm), Laurin prodded as many as 150,000 well off, educated, fully-employed English-speaking Montrealers to choose the 401 over 101 -- and to remove themselves, their jobs, their savings and their children from the province rather than face the prospect of having to learn to speak French.
Laurin's language law, the infamous Bill 101, was signed amid cheers and jeers 30 years ago on Aug. 27 and, yes, the earth shook.
Laurin saw Bill 101 as much more than a mere language law. It was a bold attempt at altering social order -- itself the outcome of a past military conquest. Thirty years ago, the rich and powerful English-speaking minority was the dominant group; bilingualism was a one-sided burden for francophones, and immigrants were assimilating massively into English.
Laurin's Charter of the French Language proclaimed that every Quebec resident had the right to work, shop, study, be administered, treated and judged in French, everywhere, all the time. The law was a radical departure from established practices at the time. It forced all immigrants' children into the French school system. It said the children of English-speaking Canadians from outside Quebec had to study in French too. It made English illegal on public signs, and said the laws and tribunals would be in French only. These last three provisions were later struck down after lengthy court battles. But Laurin stubbornly stuck to his bearing: to make French the common public language in Quebec, like it or not.
"Clearly, Laurin wanted to strike a big blow, and produce a shock therapy, powerful enough to change mentalities," says Guy Rocher, the prominent Montreal sociologist who still teaches and writes today at 83. He was Laurin's hand-picked deputy minister at the time. "I can still hear him say 'what we're doing now will have long-term repercussions, and effects that will be irreversible.' "
Far-reaching and irreversible repercussions, sure, but which ones? What's clear today is that very few at the time could predict the long-term effects of that Charter of the French Language with any accuracy. For instance:
-- The law's aim, in Laurin's words, was to "make Montreal as French as Toronto is English." In fact, Montreal today boasts the highest proportion of people speaking three languages or more in North America.
-- The law was immediately attacked as xenophobic, vengeful and racist. Words like "cultural re-engineering" and "akin to ethnic cleansing" were printed. But in fact, it is creating a multicultural melting pot out of the old, homogenous and claustrophobic culture québécoise, all at once diluting it and enriching it beyond recognition.
-- In Laurin's mind, Bill 101 was going to generate the momentum that would propel Quebec toward political independence. It has had the opposite effect. By showing that such a radical action was possible within Confederation, it has punched the air out of the separatist movement more than any single initiative coming from Ottawa.
In an interview with Laurin five years after the law was passed, but while the furor it triggered was still in full swing, my first question was: are we cured yet? He was miffed, but answered gamely: "No, not yet. We must wait for new attitudes, new behaviours to develop and set in ..." Laurin couldn't be asked how we're doing today; he passed away in 1999. But new attitudes have taken root, indeed. Bill 101 has spawned a new breed, very rare elsewhere: the bilingual Anglo. Sixty-six per cent of those who stayed in Quebec, or have migrated there since, can speak French. More than half of all those whose mother tongue was neither French nor English can now converse in these two languages; 73 per cent are able to sustain a conversation in French.
"I feel sorry for all those who fled the province, but now we know they didn't have to; they panicked for no good reason," says Julius Grey, a well-known Montreal lawyer -- who has fought some chapters of the law in court, and won. According to Grey "in its current form, Bill 101 is an essential law; it has been good for anglophones, for immigrants, for everyone." Then, he bursts out laughing. "If you'd told me 30 years ago that I'd say today that Bill 101 has essentially had only positive effects, I would have been surprised, but that's the case."(Grey gave that interview in precise, flawless French.)