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The Quebec language question is back

From Saint-Léonard to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission

by Christian Rioux
This article was translated by Julian Olson.

Entre mes quatre murs de glace
Je mets mon temps et mon espace
À préparer le feu la place
Pour les humains de l’horizon
Et les humains sont de ma race.

— Gilles Vigneault, “Mon pays”

Who remembers Saint-Léonard? This former municipality, now just a Montreal borough, was the scene of one of the sorriest events in recent Quebec history. The only real interethnic confrontations in post–Quiet Revolution Quebec occurred in Saint-Léonard. Now, with the tiny municipality of Hérouxville’s humorous expression of its dissatisfaction with Islamic immigration (it adopted a regulation which forbade the stoning of women) and with numerous witnesses at the Bouchard-Taylor Commission’s public hearings describing the growing tension between the so-called “Québécois de souche” and some immigrant communities, it is important to remember this dramatic episode in Quebec history.

Is Quebec, in a sense, going back to square one? The current situation bears a strange resemblance to the time when Quebec nationalism could easily have given birth to a movement of the right, or even the far right, with immigration as one of its principal targets. We know that this did not happen, and that in spite of real frictions, Quebec nationalism quickly took the form of a liberal centre-left movement which aimed to provide a better welcome for newcomers than most other countries in the world. But this sort of choice is never final, and the testimony heard by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission shows that the question of what attitude to take toward immigration has come back to haunt the Quebec nationalist movement. To understand why this debate is happening now, we must go back in history.

Ethnic riots

On September 3, 1969, a riot broke out in Saint-Léonard between Italian Quebecers who wanted English education for their children and members of the Ligue pour l’Intégration Scolaire (LIS, founded the previous year as the Mouvement pour l’Intégration Scolaire), a group of French-speaking parents and nationalist activists who demanded that the children of immigrants be integrated into the francophone school system. At that time, immigrants to Quebec had the choice of their children’s language of instruction, with the result that the vast majority chose English.

That this conflict would take a really violent turn stretches our imagination. Following a decision of the school commission to impose French courses on children of immigrants who spoke other languages, the members of the Saint-Léonard Italian community refused to send their children to school. A first fracas broke out following an LIS meeting in the Jérôme-Le Royer School Commission building. There were four injured, including LIS president Raymond Lemieux. A week later, a new altercation took place in the streets of Saint-Léonard. It too resulted in several injured. The LIS was denied the right to demonstrate in Saint-Léonard, but Lemieux invited his members to defy the prohibition. A thousand showed up at Le Boulevard shopping centre. This new clash injured 18 people and caused extensive property damage. The riot act was read and more than 500 helmeted police, including 300 from the Sûreté du Québec, intervened with clubs and teargas to separate the belligerents.

Weeks later the National Assembly, unaware of the apprehensions of the francophone population, lit the fuse by passing Bill 63, giving parents free choice of their children’s language of instruction. This provoked some of the biggest demonstrations Quebec had ever known. After numerous twists and turns, these events eventually led to the passing of laws that were more in line with the people’s will and restored a certain linguistic peace: Bill 22 (1974) made French the official language of Quebec and Bill 101 (1977) required immigrants to attend French schools.

As with the current debate over the kirpan in school or the veil in the voting booth, the crisis that erupted in 1969 originated in an “accommodation” of the immigrant population that the francophone majority found unreasonable. The local school commission came to the conclusion that the experiment with bilingual classes had to be ended, to be replaced with classes given in French. The large Italian minority, which preferred to send its children to bilingual schools, denounced this decision.

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About the Author

Christian Rioux
Christian Rioux is the Paris correspondent for the Montreal daily Le Devoir and a contributor to L’actualité magazine.


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