The myth of disestablished English

By William Johnson on March 31, 2013

Even as English is again under attack at the National Assembly during the hearings on Bill 14, it is perhaps true that most Quebecers have been misled into believing that English is not also an official language of Quebec. But that’s entirely unfounded in fact or in law. English has been an official language of Quebec ever since 1763. Every law passed since then has been passed in English. Every law to be passed by the current Parti Québécois government will be passed in English as well as French, and the English text will be official, just as will be the French.

English is part of Quebec’s very identity. That part is largely what makes the difference between Quebec and other former colonies of France, such as Guadeloupe, Martinique, Louisiana, Haiti, Vietnam or Algeria.

So how has the myth been propagated that French is the “sole official language?”  It began with the trickery of Robert Bourassa’s Bill 22 of 1974, the so-called “Official Language Act, which proclaimed – in English as well as French: “French is the official language of the province of Québec.”

Did English cease thereby to be an official language of Quebec? Not at all, as seven McGill professors wrote in a lengthy legal opinion, published on July 19, 1974: “Section 1 which provides that French is ‘the official language of the province of Quebec’ is misleading in that it suggests that English is not also an official language in Quebec, which it is by virtue of section 133 of the BNA Act and the federal Official Languages Act. Section 133 of the BNA Act provides for two official languages in the legislature (in debates, the records and journals, and the printing and publication of statutes) and in the pleadings and process of the courts in the province of Quebec. No legislation in the National Assembly proclaiming French the sole official language in the province can affect these bilingual areas protected by the BNA Act itself.”

This statement was signed by Quebec’s two most distinguished legal scholars, Frank R. Scott, dean of the McGill Law Faculty, and John Humphrey, the chief drafter of the United Nations’ Declaration on Human Rights. What they wrote in 1974 was then reinforced by the Constitution Act 1982, which further constitutionalized English and French language rights across Canada.

When Camille Laurin prepared the first draft of the Charter of the French Language (1977), it contained several items which the Cabinet knew were unconstitutional, as is borne out in Jean-Claude Picard’s biography, Camille Laurin. L’homme debout (2003). But Laurin persisted to declare French the only official language of the legislature and the courts, according to his admirer Picard “even after all the jurists consulted by the government explained to him that this violated Section 133 of the Canadian constitution and that it would certainly be found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada.”

And that is what happened. The Supreme Court of Canada, in its decision on Blaikie (1979) struck down the pretence that only French was the language of Quebec’s legislature and its courts. The court ruled: “Section 133 is an entrenched provision, not only forb¬idding modification by unilateral action of Parliament or of the Quebec Legislature but also providing a guar¬antee to members of Parliament or of the Quebec Legislature and to litigants in the Courts of Canada or of Quebec that they are entitled to use French or English in parliamentary or legislative assembly debates or in pleading (including oral argument) in the Courts of Canada or of Quebec.”

Picard also quoted the then deputy minister of justice, Robert Normand: “I stressed to him, as had many others, that the sections dealing with the language of the courts and of the National Assembly were unconstitutional, but he insisted on keeping them to the end and managed to convince everyone to keep them anyway in the bill.”

There was only one exception on which Laurin gave in. His first draft of the Charter of the French Language had declared:  “French is the only official language of Quebec.” But he relented when he was convinced that this would be struck down by the courts and so would undo the political effect of Bourassa’s statement in Bill 22. As Picard wrote on page 266: “And so he accepted to remove the word ‘only’ in Section 1 of the draft bill, which had stipulated that ‘French is the only official language of Quebec.’ But as for the rest, he got pretty much everything that he had wanted.”

Those who say that French is the “sole” official language of Quebec are either misinformed or deliberately misinforming. English was, is and will be an official language of Quebec.



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