map of quebec in French and EnglishBack in 1977 French Nationalists pushed Bill 101, otherwise known as the “Charter of the French Language,” through the National Assembly. The law proclaimed French as the official language of the province of Quebec and sought to give every French-speaking citizen the right to conduct all his commercial, employment, medical, governmental, etc. business in his native language. Although some of the more extreme part of the law – such as outlawing bilingual signs and requiring all court proceedings to be conducted in French – were struck down by the courts, the law nevertheless required many immigrant and English-speaking children to be schooled in French and stated that all businesses with more than 50 employees must conduct everyday operations in French.

The Nationalists saw this as a way to overcome what they considered a colonial heritage that forced the mostly French-speaking Québécois to conduct much public and private business in English – the de facto language of affairs. Although dire consequences were predicted and many well-heeled Anglophones did move out of the province, over time some people have argued that the law improved the economic and social situation in many ways. Quebec now has one of the highest rates of bi- and trilingualism in the world. The law also encouraged the promotion of francophones within many companies, helping to level out the previously existing income imbalance that had strongly favored English-speakers. And the law led to the creation of a vibrant language industry, leading the way in some aspects of translation process and technology.

But now the Parti Quebecois is seeking to strengthen Bill 101 through passage of another measure, Bill 14, which would require even more use of French. For example, the new bill would require smaller business (more than 26 employees) to conduct internal operations in French. What has caused more uproar is a provision that would decrease the number of cities categorized as bilingual. The bilingual classification gives them the right to post signage and conduct official business in both French and English. Now cities with less than 40% of inhabitants whose native language is not English would lose the bilingual classification and would be required to do everything in French. The problem is that most of the 90 cities that now have bilingual classification could lose it since people whose native language is neither French nor English would not be counted, even if they primarily used English.

This new push for French language dominance may ultimately hurt the people that it is aiming to help. Because of the effect of Bill 101, francophones in Quebec are less likely to feel the need to learn a new language. But today the force militating in favor of bilingualism is no longer a dominant, English-speaking minority; instead it is the force of globalization, which is making multilingualism a valuable employment and social skill.