home Commentary, North America, Politics, Society Bill 104: ambivalence toward bilingualism is a problem for Canada

Bill 104: ambivalence toward bilingualism is a problem for Canada

Canada was originally divided into Upper and Lower Canada. This division was based upon linguistics and culture and to this day, there continues to be a lack of harmony between Anglophones and Francophonie. Amidst all of this tension, Quebec has been very adamant about persevering French culture. Education in Canada is under provincial control and this has allowed the Quebec government to ensure that the majority of the students receive a French language education.

The population of Quebec is declining and the province has created the most liberal social benefits to encourage childbirth. This includes a largely government funded day care system, as well as a bonus to each woman that gives birth to a child. Even with these wonderful social benefits, Quebec is particularly dependent upon immigration to retain its population density.

New immigrants to Quebec are not necessarily invested in the maintenance of either the French language or culture. This is further problematized by the fact that English has become the universal language of commerce. Parents wishing to ensure that their children are able to compete for jobs globally have been spring-boarding their children into English schools. Seven years ago, Bill 104 was specifically designed to disallow those attending private English institutions for a few years from claiming Anglophone status and entering English public schools in Quebec.

This issue came to a head when a number of families decided to raise a Charter challenge, questioning the provinces’ right to restrict their child’s education. Just as in all of the other provinces, there have always been schools catering to both languages in Quebec; the difference lies with the strict enforcement on who is eligible to attend which school. In Nguyen vs. Quebec, it was successfully argued that the restriction of private English language schools imposed upon minority language rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Bill 104 was ruled unconstitutional.

Each case will now have to be evaluated individually, which further supports the legitimacy of private English schools in Quebec. The Quebec government is not pleased with this decision and has come to view it as yet another legally imposed oppression by Anglophones. French language rights were specifically written into the Charter because of its minority status and any infringement is understood to be a denial of the uniqueness of French culture.

Education is provincially mandated, thus allowing the provinces which have a largely Anglophone citizenry to limit the teaching of the French language. Canada is officially a bilingual country, but this purposeful oversight does not promote bilingualism or unity. French is largely taught as a subject, but without at least partial immersion,it is unlikely that any fluency will be achieved, thus maintaining French as a minority language. Even with special rights written into law, the status as a minority within a largely Anglophone country means that French culture and language are permanently challenged.

If both languages were to be taught equally in schools from J/K to grade 12, within a generation, the position of French as a minority language would be significantly reduced. We have shown obvious pride in bilingualism, yet the government and the Supreme Court, have failed to enact a specific system to ensure that this is indeed a part of the larger culture. There are many benefits to bilingualism, as is exampled by the number of Europeans who speak multiple languages. The failure to normalize bilingualism in Canada is the result of generations of animosity between Francophonie and Anglophones.

English-speaking Canada has shown much joy at the recent Supreme Court decision. What people refuse to acknowledge is that a reduction in French language rights means a reduction of the very diversity that we claim to treasure. Canada is the nation it is because of the participation of all of its citizens and no one group should have the right to question the existence or worth of another. The ambivalence toward language is just one of the various ways in which a concrete understanding of what a uniquely Canadian identity is continues to elude us.

Slurs against the French culture and people are common everyday occurrences and though they mark a clear form of bigotry, they’re openly tolerated as part of our culture. The issue of the French/English divide in Canada will never be resolved until a majority of the citizens speak both languages with a high level of fluency. Unlike divisions like race, class ability, sexuality, or gender, the solution to the imbalance is easy.

That we have not taken serious steps as a nation to heal this fracture is a reflection of the desire of Anglophones to maintain their undeserved privilege. “My Canada includes Quebec” must become more than a clever slogan to increase unity. It must become a purposeful part of Canadian identity if we are to build upon the achievements of previous generations. Je me souviens doit vivre au coeur de tous les Canadiens.


Renee Martin

Renee Martin lives in Canada and writes the famous Womanist Musings blog. She is as interested in socio-political issues as she is in television.

10 thoughts on “Bill 104: ambivalence toward bilingualism is a problem for Canada

  1. to some degree, i agree with you. however, the way in which the quebec government has gone about trying to promote the french language smacks of xenophobia and racism. i am also disturbed by the way that we forget that the french originally arrived in quebec AS COLONIZERS: so many people don’t ever even acknowledge this fact. and i think it’s interesting, the way in which we even have a conversation about the colonized quebec and the rights of francophones versus the ways in which we DON’T have conversations, or have incredibly limited, short-sighted, and/or racist conversations, about the rights of indigenous peoples and groups within canada.

    **note: i definitely do NOT want to say that the quebecois are more racist than any other group of white people, just that it tends to manifest itself differently here than in, e.g., ontario.

  2. “Seven years ago, Bill 104 was specifically designed to disallow those attending private English institutions for a few years from claiming Anglophone status and entering English public schools in Quebec.”

    This was meddling in private lives of people attending private schools. Forcing your culture on another group always ends badly.

  3. wow. you are terrific. do you by any chance live in ottawa? i do, and I have a women’s writers’ group/salon here weekly.

  4. @Jervas it was hardly meddling. The government simply refused to pay for public English education. The children were free to continue in private education

  5. @Jervas – It’s not bill 104 that meddles in these affairs. It’s 101. 104 closes a loophole.

    @Erika – Very good point about natives in this country. In that, it is a problem that all Canadians share. Whew, at least the french quebeckers and the rest of Canada finally share something. I think slurring Quebeckers in other parts of Canada is also fair game, as the author mentions. If not, Don Cherry would be out of a job. It’s also very popular to dismiss any race/language issues by accusing quebeckers of racism and all agreeing on that fine point.

    @renee – That’s the worst part. That means that only rich people have the right to obtain what they judge to be better for their children, in this case, strong bilingualism. So it is not based on ethnic groups or color, but on wealth ! Is that any better ? Easy for all those politicians to vote those laws, they mostly ahve the means for 14,000$ a year schools. that or they are blind nationalists like Parizeau and Marois.

    What I see here is that my child is prevented by law from going to the primary school across the street where all his english speaking friends go. Separated by linguistic politics. A few weeks ago, he asks me if he will go to the primary school in the park where he plays just across the street. I have to reply No. Hi response is why. I told him that he has to be english. he says he is learning english. I respond well, you can’t learn it. You have to be born to it.

    You know the most infuriating part is that across the street, an English Montreal School Board school, they teach 85% french for the forst three years. I can’t help but think, who is doing the best for their children ?

    I’ve hear the rationale, the arguments, the statistics. But from here on my quiet little street, I see my kid separated from his friends, based on lineage, ancestry or history. Shipped on a bus 3 kilometers away instead of across the street because I have the wrong ancestry.

    I agree that with our right, as a distinct group within Canada (and that includes all people of Quebec) to insure our cultural survival. But when that sacrifices my child’s chances at success and separates him from his friends, I draw the line.

    The promotion of french should be positive, pro-active. It should be a sell, not a conviction. it should be via courses, via promotion, via advertising. It should attract. In this tendency to legislate to force people into becoming something, we are failing. We have to convince them.

    I am tired of being called a racist. Of having our policies scrutinized.

    And most of all, I am not willing to sacrifice my child for the greater good. No way.

  6. Private education can be very expensive, especially for single parents or large families. Wealth should not be a prerequisite to autonomy.

  7. “Canada is officially a bilingual country” – No, wrong. We have two official languages, but we are not officially bilingual and this statement shows you have swallowed and/or wilfully perpetuate this piece of propaganda used to leverage even more power to French-rights advocates and away from the majority of Canadians (i.e., Anglophones).

    Your proposal to essentially enforce bilingual education across the country will be unbelievable expensive and further inflate the drop-out rate. And where would the money come from? Perhaps all the money extorted from the other provinces and funnelled to Quebec for your social programs to buy you off and keep you in Canada? Not to mention such a scheme would see essentially all teachers in Canada coming from Quebec. Given how that is already happening in Ottawa and those teachers can barely speak English, the result on education would be disastrous.

    Comparisons to Europe or also hopelessly flawed when one takes geography and history into account and demonstrates a lack of critical thought on your part.

    Though I do not disagree on the advantages of speaking multiple languages, your instance on what that second language could be is short-sighted and only serves the interests of Québec. Surely we should teach Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi or other world languages.

    In short, this piece seeks to blame everyone else for what is essentially the failure of Canadian’s francophones to maintain their language and culture. In Canada and the U.S., Latinos, Europeans, Asian, Jews and countless other peoples who have been here for generations speak English, but also maintain the language and culture of their homelands.

    But, no doubt this will all be dismissed as bigotry since I am critical of Québec. Nevermind that I am an immigrant, am learning French, enjoy the culture of Montréal and have Francophone friends.

  8. @Shandor – many an anti-black discourse starts with “I have black friends”. I don’t really have ontarian friends but you know what ? I tend to like Ontarians in general and have no particular beef with them.

    i really don’t understand what you call “the failure of Canadian’s francophones to maintain their language and culture”. Seems quite unfounded and gratuitious. Evidently we are still six million so there must be some form of preservation. Outside Montreal, barely anyone speaks english.

    I happen to be federalist and proud to be french. I don’t really agree with the author of the post either. I live in an english neigborhood. I would like to send my kid to partially to english schools so don’t count me in the preserve through legislation bunch or the nationalists.

    But somehow, your discourse still offends me.

    But then again, you mentionned that your post would be dismissed as bigotry. Maybe because that’s because it is simply offensive to anyone from Quebec and not enraged against the french ?

  9. Is anyone of you bother translating your comments ?

    Joke aside: there goes my opinion on that. My husband is anglophone and I am a Québécoise. I moved back home (to Québcec) four years ago. Still, after all this time, my husband has not been able to pass one single day without a derogative comment on his “accent”. Even at work, he hears clienst complaining to need somone speaking their language (he fixes cars!). I myself, speak english when around him and I can hear people’s (funny jokes–to whom) about “blocks” or le “maudits anglais” avec un sourire (with a smile).

    I do agree that Québec needs to be bilingual but they also need to get out of their own (country :)-if I may, myself, joke abou them!). If you never went out of your city, if you never set foot in a big city (e.g., Toronto) you don’t know the need to speak both languages or the need to love someone for who they are and not for the language they speak!

    Je parle en connaissance de cause sine I did leave in Toronto for 10 years before coming back here. What has changed? The young generation do speak English now (at least most of them) while the old generation (40 years and older–which I am also part of) have not find the need to bother with English as their life is surrounded with French.

    I understand how Québécois do not need to learn or speak English (or so little when a tourist risks asking directions)–I live in the old Québec myself! -so I do understand their “shyness” when it comes to speak that (funny) language! So why bother–most of them will have to use a second language only when travelling for a week or so !

    It is sad to see y three year old daughter try to speak English in the park and have other (Québécois-children) laught at her for doing so!. In 2010!

    make your own judgment on that, but me, I am going back to where I belong: a city that is open to others, to differences and to the rest of the world.

    Let me run away form ignorance, from my own roots as I am ashame to have been born in such a ____ city.

    We are all entitled to our own opinion, mais moi, je vis cette situation depuis plus de 12 ans, et croyez-moi, I would have rather NOT have been born in Québec!
    I will try to save my daughter from such ignorance and she will grow in a city where English is the first language but I will keep speaking French to her and sending her to French schools. Hopefully, some day, she might come back to québec city, to discover a place that has grown to accept both languages as her own…and she may wish to raise her own chidlren in Québec, wondering why her parents have not chosen such a beautiful place…

Comments are closed.