Spartacist Canada No. 151
Quebec: Language Rights and Self-Determination
We print below the translation of an excerpt from an October 4 letter from a reader in Quebec together with our reply.
] Id like to comment on the question of the French language in Quebec. I know you are opposed to Law 101, but I have to tell you that this law has allowed a large number of Québécois to work in their own language. But at the same time Law 101 has not been sufficient to defend the right to work in French, since firms with 50 workers have never been affected by the law. I just finished a contract at a large insurance company, and the employees are sometimes obliged to attend training sessions held only in English! Is this normal?
Im ready to recognize that Law 101 has discriminatory aspects, notably on the question of signage, but it is necessary to recognize that discrimination still exists with regard to French speakers. Sometimes when you shop in the west of Montreal, it isnt always easy to get service in French. The situation is certainly better than in the 1960s and 70s, but there is still a way to go.
I await your comments.
When the first Parti Québécois government introduced Law 101 in 1977, effectively promulgating a unilingual French Quebec, we denounced the chauvinist backlash this provoked in English Canada. (Federal prime minister Pierre Trudeau claimed it would take Quebec back to the Dark Ages, while a Liberal colleague said it reminded him of Mein Kampf.) Noting the long history of anti-French discrimination in Quebec, we wrote that The PQ bill contains certain obvious democratic reforms, such as the unconditional right to use the French language at work (SC No. 16, May 1977). At the same time, we noted that the basic thrust of the new legislation is chauvinist—a nationalist reaction to anti-French discrimination. We opposed the many aspects of the law that discriminated against English and other languages, for example by severely restricting non-French signs and compelling the children of immigrants—and initially of anglophones from other provinces—to attend French schools. We called for equal language rights for all and a single, secular school system with bilingual (or multilingual) instruction as needed.
Much of the reformist left championed Law 101 more or less uncritically, claiming opposition to the new law was purely a matter of Anglo chauvinism. In contrast, we noted the widespread opposition among immigrants and, especially, Native people. For example, the Inuit of northern Quebec, for whom English had historically been the means of communication with the Quebec and federal governments, organized a series of protests.
In the intervening decades, Law 101 has become widely accepted in Québécois society, not only among supporters of the bourgeois-nationalist PQ but also in the federalist Quebec Liberal Party. This is because it, together with earlier restrictive language legislation and a major expansion of French postsecondary education, has largely succeeded in breaking the dominance of English in Quebec. French-speaking shoppers in downtown Montreal are no longer told to speak white. French has become the dominant language of work and, with the cohering of a distinct francophone Québécois bourgeoisie, of business as well. A majority of immigrants now assimilate into French-speaking Quebec society rather than into the anglophone minority, which has sharply diminished through outmigration to English Canada. Meanwhile outside Quebec, once substantial francophone minorities have shrunk dramatically in the face of assimilationist pressure, including bigoted English only ordinances in various areas. (An exception is the Acadians of northern New Brunswick.)
It is certainly true, as H. notes, that aspects of discrimination against francophones in Quebec persist, for example in some smaller businesses. We oppose this, but also oppose legal restrictions on the use of English in Quebec (and, of course, on French in English Canada). In taking such a stance, we aim to cut through the linguistic/ethnic/national divisions fostered by the bourgeoisie and promote united working-class struggle against capitalism.
The language question cannot be separated from the overarching national question that dominates Canadian politics. Quebecs language laws appear to have been decisive in countering the pressures toward dissolution of the Québécois nation via assimilation into English-speaking Canada. The resulting situation where Canada is effectively split along national lines while remaining formally united acts as a major barrier to proletarian class consciousness. The rulers in Ottawa, assisted by the NDP, rail against Quebec independence and rally the workers for Canadian unity. In turn, the historically more militant Québécois working class has been tied to the coattails of its own national bourgeoisie via the PQ and Bloc Québécois.
A measure of how poisoned the situation remains can be seen in the tortured hand-wringing in English Canada over the recognition that Quebec is a nation, a simple indisputable fact. This is reminiscent of the late 1980s/early 90s, when an even more banal proposal to recognize Quebec as a distinct society brought an eruption of Anglo chauvinism that shattered the then-ruling Progressive Conservative Party. The anti-French yahoos of the Reform Party, key progenitors of todays federal Tory government, became dominant in the West, while the nationalist Bloc emerged in Quebec. This paved the way for the election of another PQ government and the 1995 sovereignty referendum, which lost by the narrowest of margins, effectively resolving nothing.
What we wrote on the eve of the referendum applies equally today:
[W]hatever the conjunctural sentiment, the fact remains that Quebec has, in all concrete ways, insisted on la survivance (survival), necessarily through compacting an insular francophone culture and society. And in English Canada, the chauvinist outcry against Quebecs assertion of national sovereignty erects profound barriers to proletarian class struggle. It is necessary, and has been for quite some time, to cut the Gordian Knot
We advocate independence for Quebec to help clear the way for united struggle by the racially integrated working class of the whole continent against the system of exploitation and oppression that threatens the future of all humanity.
—For Quebec Independence! SC No. 105, September/October 1995
As revolutionary Marxists, we start from two interlinked premises in addressing the language and national questions: the need to oppose all aspects of discrimination and oppression, and the fight to forge anti-capitalist proletarian unity.