Quebec’s quiet certitudes were troubled on the morning of August 23 when the Québec Solidaire party published on its website the following sentence: “English is an official language of Quebec and Canada.” Horrors!
The consternation was compounded when the party’s co-spokesperson, Manon Massé, repeated the heresy, in English, in a tweet, and then, after launching the party’s election campaign that afternoon before the press, she replied, in French, to a reporter’s question: “Currently, because we are still in Canada, English is an official language in Quebec. What I’m saying is that Québec Solidaire is a sovereignist party, pro-independence, which, in its first mandate, will launch the process of Quebec’s independence and, in that Quebec, for Québec Solidaire, French is the official language.”
This recognition of English as an official language triggered a storm of denunciations from all parties:
Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée: “To put the two languages on an equal footing is to stamp on the French language. In Quebec, the official and common language is French. English is an important language, but it is not an official and common language.”
Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault : “No. The official language is French.”
Premier Philippe Couillard: “We all know that French is the only official language of Quebec.”
Geoffrey Chambers, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, supposedly dedicated to protecting the rights of Quebec’s English-speaking community: “English and French are the only official languages in Canada. French is the only official language in Quebec.”
Manon Massé quickly corrected as “an error” her statement about English being an official language of Quebec. So what are the facts, as opposed to the fake news?
English has been constitutionalized as an official language of the Province of Quebec ever since the British North America Act of 1867. Moreover, during the debates on Confederation in the Province of Canada in 1865, the leading members gave constant assurances that the rights of Quebec’s English-speaking minority would be respected. Including on March 10, 1965 by Attorney General George-Étienne Cartier, the leader of the delegation from Lower Canada.
These were not mere words. The BNA Act gave to the federal government a veto over any legislation passed by provincial governments. That was a reassurance to the English speakers of Lower Canada. An additional specific power was given to the federal government to redress any injustice committed against the Protestant and Catholic minority’s schools of Quebec and Ontario. Moreover, 12 Quebec counties with an English-speaking majority had their boundaries frozen against future electoral redistribution: they could only be changed with their own consent. And so, Section 133 of the BNA Act gave English and French equal status.
The two most central functions of any state are the adopting of legislation by its legislature and maintaining of the rule of law and equal justice for all through the judicial system. Since 1867, English has been constitutionalized as an equal and official language of the provincial legislature and the provincial courts. Every single law passed since Quebec was created as a province to this day was passed in English as well as French, under both federalist and separatist Quebec governments. Any law not passed in English was declared unconstitutional and void. That’s the very essence of an official language. And that Section 133 has never been rescinded. Its intent was confirmed by the 1982 Constitution Act. No law passed by the Quebec legislature can or did abolish the official status of English. The Charter of the French Language in 1977 pretended to, but that pretention was struck down unanimously in 1979 by the Supreme Court of Canada in Quebec (AG) v. Blaikie.
And yet, almost everyone in Quebec continues to turn a blind eye to the decision of the highest court and to pretend that English is no longer an official language of Quebec because Bill 22 (1974) and Bill 101 (1977) both postured: “Le français est la langue officielle du Québec.” That equivocal sentence should have stated: “Le français est l’une des deux langues officielles du Québec.” That remains the truth.