Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

BILL 101

“There will have to be some sort of legislation which is, to say the least, an imperfect tool, sometimes a cruel tool to many people, because it changes the rules of the game, from way back.” ­ René Lévesque, 1978

In a taxi over to the Office de la langue francaise in downtown Montreal, I ask theFrench-Canadian cab driver what he thinks of Bill 101. He doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I explain that it’s a law making French the official language of Quebec; French is to be the language of business, I tell him. He looks at me incredulously. “Crazy buggers,” he says.

In the elevator there’s the faint outline of a swastika on one of the signs indicating the fifteenth and sixteenth floors of the Stock Exchange Tower, where the Office is located. I’m told later that someone who works in the building keeps defacing the signs and the janitors are kept busy cleaning them. Last time I was on the street where the Stock Exchange Tower is located every other street sign said “St. James.” Now they’re all “Saint Jacques.”

The vice-president of the Office, Jean-Guy Lavigne, is an enthusiastic and open thirty-seven-year-old who laughs a lot — often ironically — and makes no secret of the fact that he loves his work. Lavigne was born in eastern Ontario. During the war his family moved to Jacques Cartier, a working-class French community on the south shore of the St. Lawrence. Although he now earns a deputy-minister’s salary, Lavigne takes pride in the fact that he still lives there. He went to school with Pierre Vallières and Paul Rose. Like most of his friends, Lavigne dropped out of school after Grade Ten. He worked in a bank for a while, and took courses in industrial relations in English at night. His father, a labourer, told him that if he wanted to get a “top job,” a job as a policeman, say, or a fireman, he had to learn English.

Lavigne laughs as he speaks of his father’s limited ambitions for him. He started to think about language during the Quiet Revolution. Until then he’d taken for granted that Quebec was a kind of “big company town” whose business life was conducted in English. He found himself asking for the first time: “How come the bosses are all English?” “How come we don’t have bilingual paycheques?” The 1962 provincial election crystallized these questions for him. If Quebec Hydro could be nationalized — made French — other things could be too. Maybe French Canadians really could be masters in their own house.

One realizes quickly in talking to Lavigne that concern about language is the common thread that connects all French-Canadian nationalists of the past quarter-century, whatever their political affiliation. The brilliant André Laurendeau wrote in 1955, for example, that “for a French Canadian the linguistic barrier begins in Montreal.” You just have to cross a couple of streets or sometimes only step out your front door to hear English spoken. ... as time goes by [one] begins to hear nothing but English.... If he is not perfectly bilingual he is often only half understood. People get impatient. His accent seems objectionable to some of the people he talks to.... Is it any wonder [that] he begins to feel ridiculously upset [when] at the next table he hears a waitress speaking English with a French-Canadian accent?”

The FLQ was concerned with language. In 1963 it declared, “[Our] suicide-commandos have as their principal mission the complete destruction, by systematic sabotage, of ... all the information media in the colonial language ... which hold us in contempt; ... [That includes all] commercial establishments and enterprises ... which do not use French as the first language [and] which advertise in the colonial language.”

In the early to mid-1960s, Lavigne worked for the Montreal Junior Chamber of Commerce, French-Canadian division. (There’s a chamber of commerce for each of the two solitudes.) Lavigne tells me somewhat defensively that the French Jaycees were very different from their English counterparts — much less stuffy, much less conservative. People of various backgrounds, covering the whole political spectrum, were members. As a Jaycee, Lavigne came to know Paul Gérin-Lajoie, minister of education in the Lesage government and architect of Quebec’s education reforms. Gérin-Lajoie, he says, wasn’t just a dreamer; he was a pragmatist who realized that when you rebuild a society, you can’t do everything at once.

Bill 101, continued > 

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