The Métropolitain

40 years of Bill 101: The legacy of narrow spirit

Par Beryl Wajsman le 30 août 2017

Forty years ago this past week - Aug.26, 1977 - Bill 101 became law. We all know the material damage it has done. The exodus of hundreds of thousands of anglophones and francophones. The departure of head offices. The giant sucking sound of foreign investments drying up and leaving. But we want to examine today the moral damage it inflicted. That perhaps is as much its lasting legacy as anything else.

Was there prejudice against unilingual Francophones in the world of business in 1977? Indeed there was. Did that injustice have to be rectified? Yes it did. Did French language and culture need to be nurtured and encouraged even through government intervention? Without question. But were these the motivating factors behind this draconian legislation propogated by Camille Laurin? No they were not and neither was the myth of a "threat" to French language and culture. And therein lays the seed for forty years of culture war and the moral illegitimacy of this law.

The issue of strengthening French had already begun years before 101. In 1969 The Union National government led by Daniel Johnson had commissioned and released the Gendron Commission Report. Its preamble included some of the wisest words ever written on the language question. The commissioners wrote that, "It is necessary for the government to encourage the teaching, protection and use of the French language. But this should be done through education and persuasion, including the use of government assistance, not through compulsion and coercion. We will always protect the principle of freedom of choice." And that was the crux of the issue.

The essence of a free society is the freedom to choose. Even to choose badly. Constrain that freedom, and you begin the process of what James Madison called, "The slow but sure abridgment of basic rights." And that is exactly what happened.

In 1974, in an effort to appease and acquire nationalist votes, the Liberal government of Robert Bourassa passed Bill 22. The first legislation that attacked the freedom to choose. He even set up the OQLF. It was not enough for the extremists. Indeed, rather than appease, it fed their appetite for more. It is the age-old truth of Churchill's words that, "An appeaser is someone who keeps feeding the crocodile hoping he will eat him last. But eat him he will." And Bourassa was eaten.

The early election he called in 1976, two years before he was required to, brought the PQ to power with a majority. Its first major order of business was not to call a referendum on sovereignty. That came four years later. It was to launch a broad attack on the English community to make it pliable, impotent and mute. That attack was Laurin's Bill 101. Its first draft was so odious that observers from the period have reported that Premier René Levèsque used words such as extreme, unnecessary and even unconstitutional to describe it. In cabinet debates Laurin's position was always to state that the more elements the courts of law overturned, the more ammunition the sovereigntists would have to demonstrate to Quebecers why independence was necessary. Laurin's plan was to use ethnic and linguistic division and discord to achieve a political goal. "Auto-emancipation" for the majority. "Auto-abnegation" for the minority

And here is where Bill 101 failed - and continues to fail -  the test of moral, as well as legal, legitimacy. It is one thing for a political jurisdiction to want independence. There are rules of national and international law for that. But neither of the PQ's two referendums dared asked a straight question. The strategy was always from Laurin's playbook. Ever the psychiatrist he was professionally, Laurin's tactics were founded on appealing to the worst in people. Make the majority feel weak and unable to protect itself from North America's "sea of anglophones" and demand the vesting of excessive powers to the state as the protective "big brother." Make the minority the subject of constant attack as the source of all ills of the majority, absolving the latter of any historical responsibility by its own leaders and raising the menace of the perditious "les autres." It was a toxic brew of the "big lie" and "fake news" wrapped into one.

But all this in the end hurt no one more than Francophones. Legally, valiant efforts by lawyers such as Julius Grey, Alex Patterson, Herbert Marx and Brent Tyler moderated some of the more egregious sections of the law. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled against elements of it as well. But 101, having become almost holy writ - politically untouchable - even got federalist Premiers like Robert Bourassa  caught in its web when he used the notwithstanding clause to oppose a Supreme Court judgment. It is a stain on his reputation that lasts through history. But the stain on Quebec's standing in the international legal community is even worse. Over the years expansion of this law, and the violations of individual civil rights perpetrated by its strong-arm enforcers from the OQLF, have violated everything from the 1992 UN Covenant on Linguistic and Ethnic Minorities accepted by Quebec through reference all the way to the 2012 Quebec City Declaration on the Protection of Linguistic Minorities adopted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The irony of the latter meeting and the hypocrisy of the Quebec government was that Premier Pauline Marois was the host.

But more than money and law, the greatest harm done by 101 was to the soul of Quebecers. We became angry and suspicious of each other. We demeaned ourselves in ethnocentric discourse. We put the vital issues of poverty, education and healthcare on the back burners through decades of needless fratricide. Yes fratricide, for all Quebecers are in the final analysis one family with each member has woven their particular threads into the tapestry of a society that sadly never realized the full flowering of its possibility of being the new "shining city on the hill." We have become poorer, sadder and weaker. A government with the most bloated bureaucracy in the industrialized west. A bureaucracy that shows little compassion for the people it is meant to serve. It still pursues  dogma over decency.

And what of French? Well, the government's own studies demonstrate that the same percentage of Quebecers have French as their mother tongue today as in 1976. Anglophones and allophones are almost all bilingual and even trilingual while some one-third of Francophones are unilingual, hopelessly trapped from North American opportunities and even social mobility within Quebec as globalization demands some knowledge of English. And perhaps the saddest reality of all is that young, educated Francophones who should be the builders of Quebec's future are leaving the province in record numbers because they know they can compete. They want to exercise the full flowering of their individual possibilities. They no longer buy into the étatisme of 101. And they are tired of the culture wars. They want a life!

The legacy of Bill 101 is as old as the scriptures. It has made of Quebec the vision of the Prophet Ezekial. "A valley of dust and dry bones." Such is the fate of those of low limitation and evil spirit. They harm their own more than anyone else.