With the Parti Québécois winning the September 4 general election, language politics has once again been primed in Quebec and across Canada. The PQ’s election platform contained a number of policy initiatives designed to protect the French language. Two were hotly debated during the campaign.

The first was the promise to extend the Charter of the French Language’s requirement that French be the language in the workplace for companies with 50 employees or more to smaller companies. The second was the plan to extend the compulsory education in French requirement that now applies to public elementary and secondary schools to Cegeps. Cegeps offer an intermediate level following Grade 11 for students wanting to go on to university and community college–level courses for students who do not.

These two promises were reported outside of Quebec and, through that reporting, became the subject of media punditry. While there was no consensus, as there never is on such matters, the strongest and most frequently expressed opinion was that these measures were unfair to the anglophone and immigrant communities in Quebec. Francophone voices outside Quebec were not raised, but it can be imagined that these communities saw the proposals as necessary restrictions to protect the French language.

It is noteworthy that in Quebec, the reaction of the anglophone and francophone communities was almost the reverse of that of their “rest-of-Canada” cousins.

While some Anglos in Quebec were upset with the proposals, for the most part Quebecers are used to Bill 101 and expanding work and education language restrictions was not initially seen as either overly onerous or unexpected, particularly by younger Anglos.

In Quebec, the strongest opposition to the PQ language restrictions was voiced by francophone Quebecers and specifically concerned the Cegep requirement. Pundits, academics and community elites repeatedly expressed the view that, having acquired fluency in French but having failed to acquire English as a second language, many francophones (and children of immigrants) avail themselves of English Cegeps to acquire second-language skill in the hope of attending English universities or widening their job prospects.

Of course these attitudes will change – hardening or shifting – as the PQ moves from making promises to enacting legislation. Understandably, language policy is emotional because it is so connected to identity, and when language policy involves education the emotionality increases as parents express fear for their children and their children’s futures.

What I seek to do here is to put language policy in a nonemotional context, placing it in a global context and within a useful typology. Ultimately the policies favoured by citizens of Quebec will reflect their personal experiences and attitudes, but context can advance understanding of alternative positions and thus further public discourse.

Global context

The dominance of certain languages is inextricably tied to the rise and fall of hegemonic powers. As Shelton Gunaratne has noted, “Languages have moved up and down the centre-periphery of the world system depending on the power fortunes of their speech communities.”1 What languages disappear, expand or dominate is tied to a number of interdependent social factors: conquest, migration, colonization, proselytization, traffic, trade and official language planning.2

In contrast to many aspects of identity, the state is central to language politics. While the state might be able to remain neutral and separate from things like religion, it cannot claim to be impartial when it comes to language. After all, the central medium of political life is speech.3 So simply by using a language in exercising its authority, the state is undertaking a form of official language planning.

More formal official language planning is usually done for one of two reasons. The first is as a protectionist measure to ensure one language’s authority when alternative languages become popular, especially if those languages are not shared by elites.

Of the approximately 60 per cent of the countries of the world that have an official language,4 most fit into this category, and while these countries all have multiple language communities within their borders (some indigenous and some immigrant), their political elites have felt it necessary to legislate one official language to protect their community’s linguistic and cultural dominance.

Of the countries that have found it necessary to legislate unilingual protectionism, more have protected English (28 per cent) than French (16 per cent), in spite of English being accepted as the current lingua franca of the world. In the last decade, the United States, 82 per cent of whose population speaks English, saw its Congress debate the issue of giving official language status to English in response to the number of Spanish-speaking Americans passing the 10 per cent mark.

It bears repeating that official language planning is only one of a number of interdependent social factors that determine language dominance and, when used to impose an elite language on an unwilling populace, is not always successful. A striking example of language policy failure is England after the Norman conquest of 1066, which saw French fail as the official language. Instead, a new “Middle English” emerged out of Old English and French as the language of communication for both peasants and elites.5 French as the official language of England officially ended when Edward I became the first English-speaking king in 1272.

The other motivation for official language policy is equally protectionist, but in these contexts it is designed to protect the interests of a non-elite language minority population. Among the approximately 27 per cent of the countries that have adopted more than one official language, this is generally the result if not the original intent. In fact some countries have gone to great pains to protect a large number of linguistic minorities. For example, India has Hindi as its national language but has formally adopted 14 other “official languages,” with English granted associate status.6

Most countries, however, limit themselves to a few key languages, simultaneously ensuring that the majority of the population can communicate with one another and protecting primary historical and cultural groups’ distinctiveness. Although he did not provide definitive proof, linguist Heinz Kloss argued that the maximum number of languages that can be put on an equal footing is three and that the “day-to-day affairs of a country’s administration and even its legislative proceedings will soon be overtaxed, tangled, and inefficient if transacted in more than three languages.”7

So Canada is by no means unique in its adoption of official bilingualism. Twenty per cent of the countries with one or more official languages have legislated two. Where Canada is all but unique is in the two languages it has chosen. Among the bilingual or multilingual countries of the world, 34 per cent have chosen English as one of their official languages and 37 per cent have chosen French, but only one other country, Cameroon, has chosen both.8 This means that Canada is uniquely positioned to talk with many nations of the world, a benefit often cited in the context of Canada’s membership in the Commonwealth, the Francophonie and the United Nations9 and why Canadians are disproportionately represented within the bureaucracies of these international organizations and their agencies.

It is worth noting that what determines the international order of languages is not the number of primary speakers, but what Florian Coulmas called the “commodity nature of languages.” English and French share the apex of the “world hierarchy” of languages.10 While it seems likely that English will for some time continue unchallenged as the lingua franca, its future dominance is by no means certain and control of the language is quickly shifting to bilingual second-language speakers.11 As a result, not only is linguistic duality in these specific languages an advantage for Canadians, but bilingualism and multilingualism are becoming the international norm.

Regardless of global utility, protection of minority languages is also advocated as a basic form of respect for a country’s citizens and its neighbours, and an important mechanism to ensure the diversity of cultures on a global basis. As Britain’s The Economist put it, “The all-engulfing advance of English threatens to damage or destroy much local culture,” and “whenever a language dies, a bit of the world’s culture, history and diversity dies with it.”12

There are clearly egalitarian and national unity considerations with respect to language policy. However, there is by no means consensus as to what the ideal approach is, or even what should be the desired outcome.

Typology for understanding language policy

Ronald Schmidt offers an interesting model by which to examine the linguistic and cultural goals underlying all language policy.13 His typology is based on the interaction of language equality (the extent to which language policies have been intended to equalize status within a state’s jurisdiction) and social integration (the extent to which these policies are intended to integrate members of distinct ethnolinguistic groups into the same public spaces).

Figure 1 applies this typology to the various language policies that have been officially advocated in Canada over the years. The first, domination and exclusion, occurs when language policy is used to restrict participation in civil society and public life. This was the official policy of both France and Britain toward their colonial possessions, where they ensured that the governing language was denied to the natives (except to a few who could act as intermediaries) and often taught with sufficient distinctive local variations so as to ensure segregation.

More recent examples of this colonial practice can be seen in apartheid South Africa, where blacks were educated in their own “mother” languages but not in the languages of commerce and government (English and Afrikaans) and in the pre–Civil War southern United States where a number of states made it a crime to teach slaves how to read and write and where they were forced to speak a form of pidgin English.

Even after the Quebec Act of 1774, which reintroduced the civil code in Quebec and recognized the Roman Catholic religion (changing the oath of office accordingly), there was no accommodation for the French language in governance. The Constitution Act of 1791 was also silent on the language of legislation and the use of French in legislative debate (though it allowed for the oath to be taken in either language). While the legislative assemblies of both Lower and Upper Canada subsequently passed resolutions allowing for translation of legislation, the British government insisted that English continue to be the primary language of the law. In 1822, it attempted to include a clause in the proposed (but not consummated) act of union that would make English the sole language of legislative debate in the colony.14

Unlike domination and exclusion, assimilation has social integration as its ultimate goal. As W.P.M. Kennedy put it, “This approach is said to promote equality by providing an avenue of advancement for members of subordinate groups, and to foster national unity by purging the society of the very diversity that is the basis for ethnolinguistic conflict.”15 This policy was famously advocated for Canada by Lord Durham, who found the government of Lower Canada paralyzed because of what he called “racial” difference and suggested that assimilation (along with responsible parliamentary government) would ease the tensions and provide French Canadians with greater opportunities. He noted that English would undoubtedly become the language for the entire North American continent and, therefore, anyone not speaking English would end up politically, economically and culturally disadvantaged.16 Critics of assimilation argue that it is a destructive policy that targets subordinate groups in society and, according to Schmidt, by its very nature “generates a defensive reaction by subordinate ethnolinguistic groups that undermines national unity rather than promoting it.”17

The official policy of the government of Quebec on language has been to work toward linguistic confederation. The theory underlying this policy and legislation is the belief that languages are in natural competition and that one will inevitably come to dominate in any given territory.18 It is therefore argued that linguistic domination of French within the provincial territory of Quebec is necessary to prevent the elimination of French in an English-dominated North America.19 This is the principle behind the provincial Official Language Act of 1974, which first moved Quebec from being a bilingual province to being an officially French province. This law was later expanded through the Charter of the French Language (popularly and somewhat erroneously referred to Bill 101) by the Quebec National Assembly in 1977.

One final point: While Quebec’s language policy fits within the rubric of linguistic confederation, it shares the characteristics of domination/exclusion on the language equality axis. The key differentiation is the contextual reality – Quebec’s legal situation as a province in a larger federation where the majority population speaks English as their mother tongue, if not their only language. In an independent Quebec, the current rules of Bill 101 would place it in the domination/exclusion category with respect to the unilingual anglophone minority. Though it is also possible, absent constitutional protection for the English language, that the law’s provisions for English education would be removed.

The Charter of the French Language has always allowed for children to be educated in an English public school if a parent attended an English primary school in Canada, and it “grandfathered” all children (and their younger siblings) who were enrolled in an English school when the law came into effect in 1977 (section 73). The Constitution Act of 1982 extended this right to official-language minorities across Canada and expanded it to children of parents who learned one of the official languages as their first language (they didn’t have to be primary schooled in Canada) and to the siblings of children who are enrolled in a primary or secondary school in the minority language.

Since members of the anglophone community are permitted to be educated only in English, while French is the official language of the state and of most workplaces, a unilingual anglophone is excluded from the public square and many jobs. But as English is protected by the constitution and the federal government provides services in English, this policy does not have the negative consequences of its historic counterparts and must be considered in its continental context.

The final typology is pluralism. In Schmidt’s description, “Pluralist policies attempt to elevate the status of subordinate languages and cultures, and to integrate the speakers of those languages into the mainstream public arenas of civil society.”20 This is the principle, first advocated in Canada in the 1960s by the Glassco Commission and then fully developed by the Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission, which underlies official languages policy at the federal level. It aims to ensure that in the public square, regardless of whether they speak English or French or les deux, citizens can fully participate.

What now in Quebec?

The government of Canada and the government of Quebec will each claim that its particular approach to language policy is responsible for the survival of French in North America. Objectively, both are wrong, and equally objectively, it is impossible to say which policy has been of greatest help to francophones in Quebec.

Each policy, when looked at through the lens of its public policy agenda and put in its global and typological contexts, has strengths and weaknesses. Which you prefer will be informed by your own experiences, concerns and objectives.

The Marois government has expressed its desire to move quickly to implement the linguistic promises contained in its platform. While both of the controversial language proposals fall within the rubric of the linguistic confederation agenda pursued by previous Quebec governments, they have different roots for which the typology outlined above can offer additional insights.

The first proposal to extend the Charter of the French Language’s provisions that make French the language of the workplace to businesses with perhaps as few as 11 employees is rooted in domination/exclusion.21 The goal, however, is not to oppress the anglophone community, which is clearly able to survive and thrive in English in pockets of Quebec, especially Montreal. It is to create an incentive for this community to learn French, and to ensure that francophones can fully participate and are not denied employment within Quebec’s territorial borders.

It is noteworthy that during the campaign Marois mused, and then backtracked, about the need for a French-language proficiency test for elected public office holders. This policy would have shared even more similarities with the historic policies used for domination/exclusion. From a political science perspective this may suggest language policy could be better analyzed using a cartesian coordinate system (XY axis) than a simple typology.

The PQ’s desire to extend compulsory French education to the Cegep level for non-anglophones is obviously aimed at assimilation. Primary and, to a lesser extent, secondary education provides the children of immigrants with the linguistic tools to fully participate in the public square, to integrate into Quebec society and to find employment in a province where the majority speak French and where there is an official language in the workplace.

The new government’s desire is to go further and ensure that immigrants live as Québécois in the home. This is about social/cultural cohesion and about ensuring the continuation of the province’s culture and distinctiveness through the progeny of increasingly interracial marriages. With birth rates dramatically lower than when most of the population practised the Roman Catholic faith, immigration has become the tool by which Quebec replenishes its society, not just its workforce, in proportion to the Canadian population (and thus maintains its relative political influence).

It bears keeping in mind that assimilationist language policies are often part of countries’ immigration policies which, even in officially “multicultural” Canada, are aimed at integrating immigrants into the dominant milieu and giving them the tools necessary to survive and thrive in their new country.

Because these policies have these different roots, they will be opposed for different reasons by the anglophone and immigrant communities they are intended to regulate. Anglophones will feel they are being excluded and immigrants will feel they are being assimilated. The cohesive goal of these separate policy threads, though, is to ensure the domination of French in the geographical territory of Quebec, believed to be necessary because of the natural competition of languages.


1   Shelton A. Gunaratne, “Proto-Indo-European Expansion, Rise of English, and the International Language Order: A Humanocentric Analysis,” International Journal of the Sociology of Language, Issue 164 (November 2003), p. 2.

2 Florian Coulmas, Language and Economy (Oxford, England: Blackwell Press, 1992).

3 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

4 Based on the 241 polities for which the U.S. Government’s Central Intelligence Agency maintains field listings (CIA, The World Factbook, retrieved June 27, 2006, from www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/fields/2098.html).

5 David Graddol, The Future of English? (London: British Council, 1997).

6 CIA, World Factbook.

7 Heinz Kloss, “Types of Multilingual Communities: A Discussion of Ten Variables” in Stanley Lieberson, ed., Explorations in Sociolinguistics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966), p.7. For a good political economy rebuttal, which argues that protecting linguistic minorities can be both fair and economical, see Jonathan Pool, “The Official Language Problem,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 85, No. 2 (June 1991), pp. 495–514.

8 CIA, World Factbook.

9 While the United Nations recognizes six official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish), the UN Secretariat uses only two working languages, English and French (“What are the Official Languages of the United Nations,” Department for General Assembly and Conference Management, retrieved June 29, 2006, from www.un.org/Depts/DGACM/faq_languages.htm).

10 Coulmas, Language and Economy, pp.78, 13. The top ten languages in order of primary speakers are Mandarin (Chinese), Spanish, English, Bengali, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, German and Wu (Chinese). See Barbara F. Grimes, Ethnologue: Languages of the World (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1996).

11 Graddol, Future of English?

12 “Christmas Special: A World Empire by Other Means – The Triumph of English; The English Language,” The Economist, December 22, 2001, p. 29.

13 Ronald Schmidt, Jr., Language Policy and Identity Politics in the United States (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), p. 57.

14 W.P.M. Kennedy, The Constitution of Canada, 1534–1937 (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 90.

15 Ibid., p. 60.

16 For a discussion of Durham and the complete text see G.M. Craig, Lord Durham’s Report (new edition, abridged) (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, forthcoming).

17 Schmidt, Language Policy and Identity Politics, p. 60.

18J.A. Laponce, “What Kind of Bilingualism for Canada: Personal or Territorial? The Demographic Factor,” in Anthony M. Messina et al., eds., Ethnic and Racial Minorities in Advanced Industrialized Democracies (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992), pp. 265–78.

19 This argument also formed part of the original case for Quebec sovereignty (or secession from Canada) as advocated by the Parti Québécois in 1980.

20 Schmidt, Language Policy and Identity Politics, p.60.

21 The PQ platform says more than 10, though Marois said 25 at several points during the campaign.

Photo courtesy Marie Berne