Historical Context

After the rebellions of 1837 were quashed, the French-speaking population was subjected to English-language governance under the Act of Union of 1840. Some francophone leaders accepted the union, but others fought for the creation of a politically autonomous Québec state.

With the advent of Confederation in 1867, Québec leaders saw the rights of French-language minorities come under attack in New Brunswick, Ontario and Manitoba, especially in education systems. Francophone appeals for federal help to enforce French-language constitutional rights in Manitoba met with compromise on the part of the national government and stubbornness on the part of the province.

These realities paved the way for the aggressive nationalism of Lionel-Adolphe Groulx (who regarded the Conquest as the greatest catastrophe to befall the French-Canadian people) and later manifestations of separatism, such as the Rassemblement pour l'indépendance nationale (RIN), precursor to the Parti Québécois.

Meanwhile, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963-1971) revealed that French-speaking Canadians did not hold the economic and political place their numbers warranted. For example, in 1965, francophones in Québec made on average 35% less than anglophones and over 80% of employers were anglophones. Representation within the federal bureaucracy and French-language services outside Québec were also a long-standing concern.

As a result of these issues, Québec nationalists saw the French language both as fragile, in need of protection from the North American majority, and as a tool of nation-building which would enable them to gain economic and political control of the province.

Legislation in Québec

Language laws have followed a gradual evolution in Québec.

Bill 63, Loi pour promouvoir la langue française au Québec (November 1969), required children receiving their education in English to acquire a working knowledge of French and ensured that immigrants would acquire a working knowledge of French upon arrival in Québec.

In 1974, the Liberal government of Robert Bourassa implemented Bill 22, under which French was declared the official language of Québec and all immigrants arriving in Québec were enrolled in French-language schools.

For the Parti Québécois government that came into power in 1976 under the leadership of

René Lévesque, a new language law was a high priority. After publishing a White Paper on the subject (1977), it introduced Bill 1, strongly supported by nationalist and union groups (whose francophone members would benefit from greater access to jobs) among other stakeholders, and just as sharply opposed by management circles and the province's anglophone population. The bill was withdrawn because of pressure from the Liberal opposition and reappeared as Bill 101.

Introduced by Camille Laurin, Bill 101, Charte de la langue française (1977), made French the official language of government and of the courts in the province of Québec, as well as making it the normal and habitual language of the workplace, of instruction, of communications, of commerce and of business. Education in French became compulsory for immigrants, even those from other Canadian provinces, unless a "reciprocal agreement" existed between Québec and that province (the so-called Québec clause).

The English-language pressure group Alliance Québec grew out of the resulting conflict.

Court Challenges

Thereafter, this language legislation was significantly modified following a series of court rulings that changed its content and reduced its scope. In 1980 the Supreme Court of Canada supported a judgement of the Québec Superior Court that struck down the section of the Charte which declared French the language of the legislature and courts. In 1984 it was ruled that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (article 23) limited the bill's power to regulate the language of instruction (see Bill 101 Case); parents whose children had been instructed in English-language elementary schools elsewhere in Canada were granted the right to have them instructed in English in Québec, voiding the Québec clause. In the same year, the Court ruled that the compulsory exclusive use of French on public commercial signs was contrary to the freedom of speech right. The Bourassa government then introduced Bill 178, which allowed the use of bilingual signs inside businesses, but not outside. To prevent another legal challenge, the government invoked section 33, or the notwithstanding clause. This series of judgements caused dissatisfaction in nationalist groups and some relief among anglophones. As expected, such challenges to Bill 101 were not met with indifference by the Parti Québécois or even by the Liberal Party.

Additional Language Provisions

In 1993, the Bourassa administration introduced Bill 86, which allowed English on outdoor commercial signs only if the French lettering was at least twice as large as the English. A Québec court ruling demanding more proof of the fragility of the French language as a condition for upholding this law was overturned by the province's superior court.

In the years following the 1995 Québec Referendum, however, the party leadership succeeded in blunting the most radical of nationalist views regarding Québec's language policies.

Despite this trend, in 2002 the Bernard Landry government passed Bill 104, closing a loophole which allowed access to English-language schools. The Québec Court of Appeal struck down this law in 2007, and the Supreme Court of Canada did the same in 2009, under then-Liberal Premier Jean Charest. However, the Canadian Supreme Court gave Québec one year to craft a new law which would not violate the Canadian Constitution. The Québec government then introduced Bill 103, which required students to spend at least three years in a private English school before accessing the public system in English. Charest's government later passed Bill 115, based on Bill 103.

In 2013, the Parti Québécois government tabled Bill 14, which certain anglophone groups apparently found worse than the original Bill 101: it was slated to extend the law to small businesses, and revoke the bilingual status of any municipality with an English-language population dropping below 50% of the total, amongst other measures.