A reinvigorated Bill 101 looms over Quebec, and if it descends, it could impede demographic reconciliation in the province. Enacted in 1977, the bill established French as the official language of Quebec, forcing government agencies, many businesses, and other institutions to conduct operations in French. While the bill is longstanding in Quebec, anglophones have not historically feared the bill because many of its stipulations have not been strictly enforced. However, anglophones may have reason to fear it again, because Premier François Legault announced on Nov. 5 that his Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government would reinforce the bill. McGill students, in particular, should heed these developments, because they could be threatened by the policy. Although Quebec’s French history and culture should absolutely be preserved, Bill 101 has not been and still should not be fully enforced, because it disregards Quebec’s multicultural reality.
Quebec is not a cultural blank slate. In fact, cultural diversity is inherent to Quebec’s history. Additionally, Quebec has long been a land of hope and sanctuary for the marginalized; including Black Americans using the Underground Railroad to escape slavery, Jewish people escaping pogroms, and most recently, those fleeing political upheaval in the Middle East. Moreover, while relations between anglophones and francophones remain contentious, they have improved overall since the 1970 October Crisis. Francophone Quebecers were once forced to assimilate into English society if they wanted to access economic and political opportunities, but cultural pluralism has nevertheless become a foundational pillar of Quebec society. Reinforcing Bill 101 is a betrayal of this principle as it would disproportionately affect already struggling immigrants who do not speak French. Enforcing cultural homogeneity would not only antagonize minority groups that Quebec has historically protected, it would also put a roadblock in the way of improving cultural relations in Quebec. As the world confronts crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, reconciling cultural differences is more urgent than ever, because tackling these challenges requires unity and mutual support between all sectors of society.
Reinforcing Bill 101 would also be logistically impracticable. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, portions of the bill were challenged in court as violations of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While Legault has claimed that only “historic anglophones” defined by the bill would receive government communications in English, the legal obstructions to this action render Legault’s claim false. Besides which, if the original purpose of the bill was to alleviate a French-language crisis in Quebec, it has already succeeded. According to economists, Quebecers’ proficiency in the language rose to 94.5 per cent in 2016, up from 88.5 per cent in 1971. Reinforcing Bill 101 could cause an actual crisis for Quebecers who do not speak French, especially if they must receive medical bills and documents in French. Considering that many students at McGill are either Anglophone Quebecers, Canadians from English-speaking provinces, or international students who do not speak French, it is possible that the McGill student body would be hit particularly hard by these measures. Consequently, reinforcing the bill would not only be disastrous for affected students, it could also threaten McGill as an institution. Premier Legault should learn from the failure of René Lévesque, because the economic havoc created by his nationalist Parti Québécois and the premiership of Lucien Bouchard is partly responsible for McGill’s current financial problems, among other economic issues across Quebec.
Reinforcing Bill 101 is morally objectionable, logistically untenable, and economically inadvisable. Most importantly, Legault’s proposal is indefensible because it would unnecessarily hinder the lives of the CAQ’s English-speaking constituents. Not only that, but it could also negatively impact McGill students, particularly international students, by making it more difficult to live in Quebec without speaking French. Divisive policies like Bill 101 are a disservice to Quebec’s cultural heritage, because they ultimately prevent outsiders from even accessing Quebec, preventing the world from appreciating Quebec’s many idiosyncrasies. By touting Quebec’s multicultural and bilingual history as much as its French history, the CAQ can promote French culture without replicating the draconian policies of past anglophone administrations. McGill students should support protests against Bill 101 in Montreal, but not just because the bill could negatively affect students. McGill is an institution of learning and, armed with the facts, its students have the means to challenge the bill on moral and practical grounds.