The beauty, history and old-world charm of the province of Quebec can only just barely mask an ugly side to this French-speaking corner of North America. Quebec nationalism, often referred to as seperatism, has been a fact of life in Quebec ever since the British conquered the Canadas in 1759. Seperatism has flared up, often violently, several times in the past, and has nearly torn the country apart on two occasions. While seperatism seems to have hid its head in the ground for the time being, its arse is still sticking up in the air in the form of Bill 101, otherwise known as The Charter of the French Language.
French nationalism in Quebec boiled up in 1917 during the Conscription Crisis. In 1914 Canada went to war when Britain went to war. A million young and eager men signed up and were sent to France, where, over the next three years, they were bloodily gunned down in the mud of Flanders and the Somme. By 1917 casualties had reached such critical levels that the number of volunteers available were unable to replace the losses on the front. The Liberal government of PM Robert Borden faced a manpower crisis, and for the first time in Canada’s history a national draft was enacted, requiring all men between the ages of 17 and 45 to enlist and be sent to the killing fields of France.
While most people in English Canada complied with the law, it was a different matter in Quebec. Most Quebecois had been against the war from the beginning, seeing it as a British Imperialist conflict and of no business to Quebec’s internal interests. Many Quebecois did not volunteer, although thousands did serve overseas with distinction in regiments like the Van Doos. For the average Quebecois, the federal government’s Conscription Act was a declaration of war on their provincial rights. In the summer of 1917, mass demonstrations broke out in Montreal, Quebec City, Gatineau and other Quebec towns. Tens of thousands of men and women turned out in protest to conscription. As police in Montreal attempted to put down the demonstrations with heavy hands, riots broke out. Within days the riots had spread across the province like wildfire. Buildings were burned, police stations were ransacked and barricades were erected in the streets. Quebec’s MPs in Parliament withdrew their support of the Conscription Act and Borden’s government almost fell. As Quebec burned and the government came close to toppling, Borden wavered and finally repealed the draft.
The “Conscription Crisis”, as it has become known, ended but the awareness it had brought to French society in Quebec did not. For many Quebecois, the mass uprising and the subsequent victory against Ottawa it caused gave them the realization that popular movements could work. It filled many with pride and a sense of mission. Quebec nationalism in its modern form was born out of the fires of the 1917/1918 riots.
This nationalism would grow slowly over the next few decades, fed and expanded upon mainly by the intellectual class in academia and the media. University groups were formed to discuss Quebec’s unique heritage and role in the world, while columnists and subscription magazines waxed heavily on Quebec’s national characteristics. During the Second World War Quebec society was mostly behind the war effort, but following the end of hostilities and the post-war boom the “Quiet Revolution” picked up with vigour. Marxists had infiltrated the trade unions and latched on to Quebec nationalism, and the national spirit had seeped into grade schools and around the dinner table. The Quiet Revolution would come to an end in 1969 when the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) exploded their first bombs on the streets of Montreal.
This terrorist organization, inspired by Marxist and Basque Separatist movements abroad, sent its members to Libya for formal training in terrorism. The Quiet Revolution had devolved into an outright terrorism campaign for complete separation of Quebec from Canada. Over the next year the FLQ would set off hundreds of bombs targetting federal institutions and English businesses in Quebec, mainly in Montreal. In 1970 an FLQ cell even managed to kidnap a cabinet minister, Pierre LaPointe! When the federal government under Pierre Trudeau refused to give in to their demands, they murdered the hapless minister. This was the final straw for the feds, who mobilized the army and locked the province down under martial law. These heavy-handed methods, although very unpopular even in English Canada, produced the desired effect. The FLQ was relentlessly hunted down over a period of several months and a year after the first bomb had gone off in Montreal, the FLQ no longer existed, its members behind bars, in hiding overseas or dead. Many, seeing which way the wind was blowing, quietly burned their membership cards and nonchalantly rejoined polite society.
The FLQ may have been destroyed, but Quebec nationalism was at an all-time fever pitch. Separatists realized that armed struggle could not get them anywhere. Instead they looked at the lessons of the 1917 crisis and decided on a political campaign. They banded together into the Parti Quebecois, provincial political party with complete secession from Confederation as its goal. To represent their interests in the federal Parliament in Ottawa they formed the Bloc Quebecois.
In 1976, under the fervent nationalist leadership of Rene Levesque, the Parti Quebecois swept the polls in the provincial elections and became the government. The nationalists finally had the opportunity to remake Quebec as an independent country.
The first thing they did, in 1977, was pass the Charter of the French Language, also known as Bill 101. The preamble to the bill summed it up: “To make French the language of Government and the Law, as well as the language of normal everyday life, work, communication and business. The bill then goes on in 9 chapters to make French the only legal language in Quebec.
For the nationalists, this was honey. For the sizeable anglophone minority in Quebec, mainly in Montreal, this was bad news. Part of the bill gave the Office Quebecois de la Langue Francais, a government agency set up in 1961 to promote French language and culture (mainly to tourists), enforcement powers and a sizeable budget to pursue the articles of the Charter. Among the powers granted to the OLF in the Charter are the powers to monitor and report to the Minister on the state of the French language and any threats to it, to see to it that French is the normal and everyday language on the streets, at work, in business, in government and in schools, and to investigate, fine and/or prosecute any person(s) and/or organizations that breach the spirit of the Charter.
The OLF had become the Language Police.
For anglophones living in Quebec, the Language Police have become something akin to the Gestapo. In 1988 a CBS 60 Minutes expose of the OLF first coined the term “Language Police” and highlighted some of the abuses English speakers have endured at their hands. For instance, any signage that is viewable to the public has to be in French. The OLF was found to have been prosecuting people who wore t-shirts with English wording, or persons who had posters in their bedroom that could be seen by people outdoors or neighbours! With the Language Laws and the formation of the Language Police, hundreds of international corporations, businesses, and factories closed up shop in Quebec and relocated to Ontario. They brought with them a near-exodus of English speakers from the province in what has been dubbed the “English Exodus”. Between 1977 and 1987 it is estimated that more than 1.1 million people fled the province, taking with them much of the economic wealth that had made Quebec a vital part of Canada.
With the closure of so many businesses and the exodus of the Anglophone communities, who made up much of the elite of Quebec society, the province’s economy sank into a deep recession. Rene Levesque was booted out of office following a failed separation referendum in 1980, but subsequent governments kept the Language Police and Charter to pander to the sizeable nationalist voting block in the province.
In recent years the Language Police have made international headlines and have again made Quebec the laughing-stock of North America, this time with the “Pastagate” and “Facelivre” scandals. In 2012 the Language Police directed their attentions to Italian restaurants, and began to issue fines, search and seizure warrants and even revoked the business licenses of Italian restaurants that displayed such non-French words on their menus as “pasta” and “Spaghetti” and even “vino”. In early 2014 the Language Police went after Quebec small business owners who posted in English on facebook, fining and closing down several small boutique retailers. The OLF has recently issued an order to supergiant Walmart to change their name to something more palatable to the French. Walmart is, however, fighting this order in court and will appeal it to the Supreme Court if necessary.
In 2012 the separatist Parti Quebecois was back in power, this time with a minority government under Pauline Marois. Marois is intent to bully and harass the remaining Anglophone enclaves in Montreal and the small bilingual communities of western Quebec, and has sicked the Language Police on them specifically. Families are no longer permitted to send children to English schools, and members of the military serving on federal bases in Quebec must all speak French as their daily language. In 2013 two Creole women, nurses at a Quebec hospital, were overheard speaking in Creole during their lunch break. They were promptly reported, suspended and fined by the all-pervasive language police who are chartered to enforce the speaking of French even in people’s private lives.
The Language Police and the Parti Quebecois are an embarasment to Quebec. This beautiful province, filled with friendly, intelligent and sexy people, founded in a heritage and history unlike any other, and home to so much culture and potential, is made into a tin-pot banana republic by institutions like the OLF. It is time that Quebec joins the 21st Century and reclaims its rightful place as a proud and distinct member of the world.