Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Language Politics North of the Border

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An enduring characteristic of Canadian politics in the last 50 years has been the question of language and how it plays out in the French speaking province of Québec. From the outset in 1867, Canada adopted a federal system of government at Québec’s behest, giving the constituent federated states defined constitutional jurisdictions. The Canadian Constitution (1867) also guarantees the use of French and English in both the national legislature (House of Commons and the Senate) and Québec’s legislative assembly (the National Assembly).

Over the years, linguistic tensions and divisions emerged in different parts of the country leading many in Québec to question whether linguistic equality actually existed, and whether Québec remaining in the Canadian federation was the best course for ensuring the survival of its French character.

In an effort to respond to the concerns of Canada’s French-speaking minority, (French communities outside Québec, and Quebec’s French majority population), the country’s national leadership eventually adopted the Official Languages Act 1969 making French and English official languages. This Act was later given constitutional force in 1982 by amendment. The principal effect of this move was felt in the federal bureaucracy and within Canada’s minority language communities in their dealings with the central government apparatus. Official bilingualism remains a major feature of Canadian democracy.

While the federal level was coming to grips with language issues in the nation’s capital (Ottawa) and beyond in the 1960s, Québec was undergoing its “Quiet Revolution” with the election of a progressive government headed by the Québec Liberal Party in 1960. By the end of the decade, progressive forces in and out of government had changed Québec’s political and sociocultural landscape dramatically in nearly all sectors of civil society. However, economic challenges remained, and linguistic activism soon emerged as the growing force in the public debate.

By the mid-1970s, following much study, debate and protest, French was declared Québec’s only official language by legislation. This was first introduced by the pro-federalist Liberal Party of Québec in 1974 and later reinforced by the new pro-sovereignty Parti Québécois government in 1977. This approach may have contrasted with the federal initiative of two official languages, but it did represent a growing consensus within French-speaking Québec in dealing with the survival of the French language.

Québec’s new policy did not occur without reaction and confrontation. Many in Québec’s English-language population reacted immediately—some chose to leave Québec fearing discrimination, while others chose to contest the policy in court. Over the years, however, Québec’s language laws have evolved because of new realities, court rulings based on both the Québec and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and legislative changes by successive Québec governments. It is important to add that the English-language community continues to have institutions that meet its needs and defines its character. While irritants remain, Québec has undergone a sustained period of linguistic peace since the mid-1990s.

Today, with increased immigration flows, the growing lure of new technology and greater globalization, new pressures are placed on Québec’s language policy. While French is still the first language of 82 percent of Québec’s population, it remains a minority language in Canada and is now the third most spoken language after English and Spanish in North America. No one in Québec’s current political class is ready to declare victory in the historic battle to protect the French language.

The recently elected Parti Québécois government in Québec has committed to reexamine existing laws to reinforce their applicability to protect and promote French, and likely to initiate new policies to expand the use of French. Despite this intention, it remains clear in opinion surveys available to all lawmakers that the Québec population—both French speaking and English speaking—values multiple language skills and also insists on greater access to individual bilingualism. This latter point is encouraging for those who wish to find pragmatic solutions to linguistic issues.

Language will always remain a part of the political debate both in Canada as a whole, and especially in the federated state of Québec. Having been part of some of the past battles, I remain confident that the road travelled provides a more positive path than a negative one. The hope is that policymakers will see dialogue, pragmatism, inclusion, and an incentive-based course of action as more productive for progress and harmony than a win-lose approach.

Finally, some outside Canada who study the conduct of language politics north of the border may well see it as an example to other countries faced with the challenge of accommodating more than one language in their governance and in civil society.

John Parisella is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently an invited professor at University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. His Twitter account is@JohnParisella.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Canada, English, French, Language
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