In those heady days of 1974–Bellbottoms! Rumble in the Jungle! Blazing Saddles!–Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, who acted every bit like the nebbish apparatchik that he resembled, introduced Quebec’s first real stab at language legislation. Bill 22 was, like Bourassa himself, a masterful compromise: it mandated the use of French in public administration, required English businesses to have French names and use the language in its day-to-day activities. At the same time, as Marianopolis’ Claude Belanger points out, “On the subject of schools, it maintained the freedom of choice for the language of instruction, but subjected the entrance into English schools to those children that a test showed had a knowledge of English.” The bill added a thick bureaucratic layer to government, charged with enforcing the law.
No one was happy. Many Francophones said it didn’t go far enough, while the English community screamed bloody blue murder. The result, as the Gazette’s Don Macpherson notes today (Don: I ain’t copying. As God is my witness, I thought of the Bill 22 analogy before reading your column), was disastrous for the Libs: Bourassa’s English vote stayed away in droves while the French gravitated to the PQ. Add a whiff of Liberal corruption surrounding the James Bay development and voila! The PQ took power.
Fast forward 36 years, and we have a very similar language spat, this time surrounding English schools. The details are long and yawn-inducing, so here’s the Coles Notes: in Quebec, access to English school is limited to those whose parents were educated in English in Quebec. However, by sending your young’un to private English school for a year, you could “buy” your way into a public English school. In 2002, the PQ put an end to this with its own law. In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that parts of the PQ law were unconstitutional, and gave the government a year to fix it. This week, the Liberals introduced Bill 103. It effectively stretched the amount of time required in private English school from one to three years, and said every single as-of-yet ineligible student must pass before a committee to judge if they are significantly English enough for English school.
As with Bill 22, no one is happy, with the PQ saying the bill still allows people to “Buy” a right to English schools, while English groups say access to English schools is so restrictive that it is slowly choking the public English system to death. “It fails the litmus test for a good compromise. And that test is ‘I’m not happy, but I can live with it.’ With Bill 103, no one is happy,” Dermod Travis, veteran language guy, told me today. “Rights should not be accorded on the size of your wallet. And what this bill does is simply require a heftier wallet.”
(I haven’t read it anywhere, but I assume that the ADQ is bemoaning the bureaucratic burden this bill requires, and rightfully so.)
This isn’t to say Charest will suffer anywhere near the same fate as Bourassa on this. Times and context have changed significantly, particularly with many young French parents who want their kids to go to English school. Besides, there isn’t a looming election.
It just goes to show how consensus is as fleeting as ever when it comes to language issues in this province.