Thirty years ago tomorrow, when the Charter of the French language was adopted by the National Assembly, Réne Lévesque implored Quebec’s anglophone and allophone minorities to give Bill 101 "a chance."
Lévesque himself was never very comfortable with the interdictions and coercive nature of his government’s language law. He found it "humiliating," although he also found it "normal," a favourite word of his that found its way into the preamble of the legislation, which stated that French was "the normal and everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business."
All this would be achieved, the preamble affirmed, "in a spirit of fairness and open-mindedness, respectful of the institutions of the English-speaking community in Quebec and respectful of the ethnic minorities whose valuable contributions it readily acknowledges."
Both statements are pure Réne Lévesque. He was always conflicted in one way or another. Although Bill 101 occurred on his watch as premier, he was quite happy that Camille Laurin was known as its father. For himself, Lévesque always claimed that his proudest achievement was Bill 2, the campaign finance reform that to this day serves as a model of transparency in Canadian politics.
In the short term, Lévesque’s plea to give Bill 101 a chance largely fell on deaf ears among non-francophones in Quebec. For many individuals and businesses, Bill 101 led to the 401, the road to Toronto.
The impact of the exodus, of about 100,000 English-speaking Quebecers, can be seen and felt to this day. It can be seen on holiday weekends, such as Easter and Passover, where there’s a visible increase in cars with Ontario licence plates, their owners coming home to visit the parents.
The exodus of head offices, beginning with the Sun Life, meant that Montreal would lose, never to regain, its role as Canada’s pre-eminent head office city.
And in the long run ? Well, as Lord Keynes famously said, in the long run we are all dead.
Lévesque died in 1987, a decade after the promulgation of his language law. And in many ways he died a bitter and broken man, denied his ambiguous quest for sovereignty-association in the 1980 referendum, re-elected in 1981 for a second mandate, which ended in a Parti Québécois schism over shelving its referendum option, with hard-liners like Laurin and Jacques Parizeau quitting, and Lévesque finally leaving office in 1985, unable to conceal his disgust with the ungovernable party he had founded.
As for the longer-term consequences of Bill 101, two clear story lines emerged. First, the language law provided a blanket of what Robert Bourassa used to call "cultural security," depriving the PQ of its essential agenda of grievance. Second, Bill 101 became the tablets, politically untouchable even when parts of it were overturned in the courts, as it has happened on more than one occasion since the adoption in 1982 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Both narratives have resulted in enduring consequences.
In the first one, Lévesque and Laurin could never have foreseen that the cultural security provided by Bill 101 made sovereignty-association redundant. In such circumstances, why would Quebecers choose between Quebec and Canada, when they could have both ?
And since the near-death experience of the 1995 referendum, which was driven by emotional payback for the death of Meech Lake in 1990, Quebecers are in no hurry to repeat such a divisive experience. Since the rise of Mario Dumont with his autonomist motto, s’affirmer sans se séparer, the sovereignty option has gone into free fall.
In the second storyline, successive Quebec governments, Liberal no less than Péquiste, have rallied to the defence of the language law. Bourassa, the father of Bill 22 which enacted French as Quebec’s official language in 1974, felt obliged to invoke the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights to override the Supreme Court decision on the language of signs in 1988. Only before leaving office in 1994 did he enact the more generous Bill 86, essentially adopting the high court’s ruling that French would be the priority language of signs while others were permitted. But even this week, the Liberal government of Jean Charest quickly declared it would challenge a Quebec Court of Appeal ruling setting aside Bill 104 on access to English schools following a year of attendance at private schools outside the purview of Bill 101. No Quebec government can fail to defend the tablets.
Thirty years on, the children of Bill 101 are becoming parents. Anglophones routinely speak two languages. Allophones routinely speak three. Which is why the pressure to start English courses in Grade 1 of French schools came from francophone parents.
As for the people and businesses who left Quebec, they, and their tax dollars, are not coming back. In nostalgic moments, they have been known to stage high school reunions, with Montreal smoked meat, in Toronto.
To which Réne Lévesque might have given a trademark shrug. It’s normal.