Language and Language Laws in Quebec

Quebec: Population: 7 345 000 (1999), Native Language: French: 82%, English: 9%

Quebec's linguistic situation, while the subject of countless discussions, is still strikingly misunderstood outside the province. In 1977, the Quebec government adopted bill 101, La charte de la langue française, which spells out the fundamental linguistic rights of all Quebecois. The purpose of this web page is to sketch out the linguistic situation in Quebec before and after 1977 and to offer a brief overview of Quebec's linguistic legislation and its effects. I made it a point to include actual excerpts from La charte and official statistics from both the Canadian and Quebecois government and I apologize if the result is at times less flowing.


The following is taken from course material for Quebec History at Marianopolis College in Montreal. This excerpt and tons of useful information are available online at this address

[P]rior to the 1960’s, the francophone population of Quebec was relatively poorly educated. The low level of educational attainment had several effects, one of which is that it largely placed most of the population of Quebec in the working class rather than in the managerial class. There developed a social structure within which, generally, francophones were on the production lines while anglophones belonged far more likely to the professional and managerial class. There was relatively little competition between the two. This was the society that was described by American sociologist Everett Hughes in French Canada in Transition in the late 1940’s. With the development of the educational system of Quebec in the 1960’s, a newly created francophone scientific and technocratic class challenged the dominant position of anglophones and demanded linguistic legislation to win its place in the sun.

Before the Quiet Revolution, English had long been dominant in Quebec, economically and socially; it was the language most endowed with prestige. It was the language of choice for immigrants when they settled in the province. Yet, this position of dominance was not challenged. Following the Rebellions of 1837-38, a sort of unwritten rule was established: henceforth, anglophones would not threaten the cultural gains made by francophones and would not seek to keep them out of the political sphere, as had been done before 1837. In return, francophones would not challenge the dominant economic position of the anglophones. This elite accommodation worked for a long time, as long as there did not exist a commercially oriented francophone class that could only gain its place in the sun by lessening the grip that anglophones had on business in Quebec. Again, the social promotion of this class could only be achieved with proper training, through the promotion of French as the common language in Quebec, and as the primary language of business. Such a class was only produced progressively after the Second World War. It only became strong enough during and after the Quiet Revolution. Thus, though the dominance of anglophones, and of the English language, was likely resented before the 1960’s, it was not challenged, as the class to replace the anglophones simply did not exist. When such a class arose, it was likely to lead to a language debate.

A second factor for the rise of the linguistic issue after the 1950’s was the development of the civil rights movement and the process of decolonisation. While advocates of individual, minority and national rights existed before, there is no doubt that the early 1960’s witnessed a growth of popularity and support for civil rights. [...] In French-speaking Quebec, there was a close identification with [these] foreign movements of self-assertion. When Pierre Vallières wrote his revolutionary work about Quebec in the 1960’s, he entitled it Nègres blancs d’Amérique. The case was somewhat overstated, but few found the title inappropriate.

The view spread rapidly in Quebec that francophones were discriminated against and that this should end. Scientific studies supported this view. Francophones in Quebec earned significantly less than their anglophone counterparts. A study for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in the mid 1960’s found that when the income of the 14 main ethnic groups in Quebec was compared, francophones’ income ranked twelfth, just before Italians who were relatively recent immigrants to Quebec, and Amerindians. As much as 40% of the discrepancy in the income of francophones, when compared to people of British descent, could not be explained by objective factors such as education, experience, type of job etc. The Commission was at a loss to explain this discrepancy, save to ascribe it to discrimination and the lack of importance of the French language in the economy of Quebec. [See a summary in Lysiane Gagnon "Les conclusions du rapport B.B: de Durham à Laurendeau-Dunton: variations sur le thème de la dualité canadienne", in Robert COMEAU, ed., Economie québécoise, Montreal, Presses de l’université du Québec, 1969, pp. 233-252. From the same Royal Commission consult Donald E Armstrong, Education and Economic Achievement, Ottawa, 1970, 101p. and Christopher Beattie, Jacques Désy and Stephen Longstaff, Bureaucratic Careers: Anglophones and Francophones in the Canadian Public Service, Ottawa, 1972, 652p.] Other studies showed that there was a close correlation between knowledge of English, being anglophone in Quebec and higher income. The situation was such that it seemed as if the less French one knew the more likely one was to do well. In 1961, unilingual anglophones in Quebec earned 37% more than bilingual francophones and 93% more than unilingual francophones. In the census of 1971, while the gap had somewhat narrowed, unilingual anglophones still earned 18% more than bilingual francophones. Only in 1977-78 did unilingual anglophones start to earn less than bilingual francophones. This was after Bills 22 and 101 had been issued.

Language Laws

Prior to the 1960's, only two language laws had ever been passed by the government of Quebec.

The first is known as the Lavergne Law, issued in 1910. It required that tickets on trains, busses and tramways in Quebec be in French, as well as in English. Until that year, the tickets had usually been only in English in Quebec. The other law was issued under Duplessis in 1937. It required that the French text of the laws of Quebec prevail over the English text, as more likely reflecting the intent of the legislators of the National Assembly. This bill was resented, and opposed, by anglophones, who saw it as an assertion of the pre-eminence of French in Quebec. Quietly, in 1938, the bill was withdrawn.

source: course Material, Quebec History at Marianopolis College

La Charte de la langue française (1977)

WHEREAS the French language, the distinctive language of a people that is in the majority French-speaking, is the instrument by which that people has articulated its identity;

Whereas the National Assembly of Québec recognizes that Quebecers wish to see the quality and influence of the French language assured, and is resolved therefore to make of French the language of Government and the Law, as well as the normal and everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business;

Whereas the National Assembly intends to pursue this objective in a spirit of fairness and open-mindedness, respectful of the institutions of the English-speaking community of Québec, and respectful of the ethnic minorities, whose valuable contribution to the development of Québec it readily acknowledges;

Whereas the National Assembly of Québec recognizes the right of the Amerinds and the Inuit of Québec, the first inhabitants of this land, to preserve and develop their original language and culture; Whereas these observations and intentions are in keeping with a new perception of the worth of national cultures in all parts of the earth, and of the obligation of every people to contribute in its special way to the international community;

Therefore, Her Majesty, with the advice and consent of the National Assembly of Québec, enacts as follows:

Preamble from La charte
(source: Office de la langue française)

French is the official language of Quebec .

Article 1, La Charte de la langue française

In 1951, native speakers of French represented approximately 83%* of Quebec's population, native speakers of English, approximately 14%*, with 3% of allophones. In 1991, the percentage of native speakers of French remained unchanged (it climbed from 65% to 68% in the Montreal area), native speakers of English now represent roughly 9%** of the population (15% in the Montreal metropolitan area) and native speakers of other languages are up to approximately 8%.

source: *Institut de la statistique du Québec, ** Statistics Canada

The following table indicates knowledge of languages in Quebec from 1951 to 1991.

Census Year French Only English Only English and French Neither English nor French
1951 62.5% 11.4% 25.6% 0.5%
1961 61.9 11.6 25.5 1.1
1971 60.9 10.5 27.6 1.1
1981 60.1 6.7 32.4 0.8
1991 58.1 5.5 35.4 0.9
Source: Brian HARRISON and Louise MARSEN, Languages in Canada, Ottawa,
Statistics Canada and Prentice-Hall, 83p., p. 80

Consumers of goods and services have a right to be informed and served in French.

Article 5, La Charte de la langue française

Every person has a right to have the civil administration, the health services and social services, the public utility enterprises, the professional corporations, the associations of employees and all enterprises doing business in Quebec communicate with him in French.

Article 2, La Charte de la langue française

It is difficult to get statistics on this issue but it is clear that it was extremely hard for a francophone to receive services in French in Montreal prior to Quebec's linguistic legislation. In 1945, my father took his first train ride from Abitibi to Montréal. He didn't speak English and could not communicate with the Canadian National personnel onboard. Once in Montreal, his brother used what little English he knew to call a taxi from the train station and get to a hotel where English would undoubtedly be needed at the front desk. There was also little hope for them to receive any service in French in any of Montréal's largest stores. Up until the Quiet Revolution, English is seen as the only language in which business can be conducted. The feeling of alienation shared by many francophones is reflected in the Quebecois literature of the 60's and 70's, from Michelle Lalonde's controversial poem "Speak White!" to Pierre Vallière's Nègre blanc d'Amérique and the works of Gaston Miron. This excerpt is from Miron's Recours didactique (L'homme rapaillé. Montreal: PUM. 1970. p.127)

Longtemps je n’ai su mon nom, et qui j’étais, que de l’extérieur. Mon nom est “Pea Soup!” Mon nom est “Pepsi!” Mon nom est “Marmelade!” Mon nom est “Frog”. Mon nom est “dam Canuck”. Mon nom est “speak white”. Mon nom est “dish washer”. Mon nom est “cheap”. Mon nom est “sheep”.

Workers have a right to carry on their activities in French.

Article 4, La Charte de la langue française

In 1971, francophones had the lowest employment rate in the province and occupied only 41% of administrative positions in the Montreal area. In 1991 that number had climbed to 67%*. The percentage of large companies (100 or more employees) whose board of directors was predominantly French speaking went from 13%* in 1976, to 43% in 1991. Francophones occupied 19%* of those companies' top management positions in 1976, in 1991 that number had increased to a mere 35%. So many of the single enterprise communities like Noranda, Val d’Or, Murdochville, were created by English-speaking capital and, until the 1960s, English-speaking management made English the dominant language.

Every person eligible for instruction in Québec has a right to receive that instruction in French.

Article 6, La Charte de la langue française

Article 6 of La Charte only stipulates that everyone has the right to receive education in French; article 72 goes one step further and states that instruction in kindergarten, elementary and secondary schools shall be in French. A grandfather clause allows childern to go to English school if one of their parents has received elementary or secondary instruction in English in Canada. In 1994, 25.7%* of elementary and secondary school students in Quebec received their instruction in English (only 5% of anglophones attend a French college.) The full text of article 72 appears below.

72. Instruction in the kindergarten classes and in the elementary and secondary schools shall be in French, except where this chapter allows otherwise.

This rule obtains in school bodies within the meaning of the Schedule and in private educational institutions accredited for purposes of subsidies under the Act respecting private education (chapter E-9.1) with respect to the educational services covered by an accreditation.

Nothing in this section shall preclude instruction in English to foster the learning thereof, in accordance with the formalities and on the conditions prescribed in the basic school regulations established by the Government under section 447 of the Education Act (chapter I-13.3). 1977, c. 5, s. 72; 1992, c. 68, s. 138; 1993, c. 40, s. 23. 73.

The following children, at the request of one of their parents, may receive instruction in English:

(1) a child whose father or mother is a Canadian citizen and received elementary instruction in English in Canada, provided that that instruction constitutes the major part of the elementary instruction he or she received in Canada;

(2) a child whose father or mother is a Canadian citizen and who has received or is receiving elementary or secondary instruction in English in Canada, and the brothers and sisters of that child, provided that that instruction constitutes the major part of the elementary or secondary instruction received by the child in Canada;

(3) a child whose father and mother are not Canadian citizens, but whose father or mother received elementary instruction in English in Québec, provided that that instruction constitutes the major part of the elementary instruction he or she received in Québec;

(4) a child who, in his last year in school in Québec before 26 August 1977, was receiving instruction in English in a public kindergarten class or in an elementary or secondary school, and the brothers and sisters of that child;

(5) a child whose father or mother was residing in Québec on 26 August 1977 and had received elementary instruction in English outside Québec, provided that that instruction constitutes the major part of the elementary instruction he or she received outside Québec.

Before linguistic legislation was adopted, almost all immigrants assimilated to the anglophone population. Statistics indicate that, as early as 2011, native speakers of French will be a minority on the Montreal Island (48.8%*) and that allophones (26.3%*) will outnumber native speakers of English (24.9%*). The figure below shows the percentage of Italian-speaking children attending English school in the Montreal area between 1930 and 1973.

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Education at the College and University level is available to everyone in English and French. In 1980, the percentage of native speakers of a language other than French or English who chose to get their college education in English was 80%, in 1994, that number had dropped to 53%*. That same year, French Universities were chosen by 95% of francophones, 7% of anglophones and 47%* of allophones (42% in 1986).

According to the 1991 census, native speakers of French had the lowest rate of university degrees in the province (11% vs.19% for the anglophone population).

source: *Office de la langue Française, ** Statistics Canada

Legislation on Signs

One of the most talked about aspects of the linguistic laws in Quebec is the provision of La Charte which requires French to be "markedly predominant" on commercial signs and posters. The image of the "language police" measuring the size of the characters on signs is often used to criticize Quebec's linguistic policies. While the expression "language police" is obviously tainted and used to evoke a more totalitarian government, there are public workers whose job is to investigate complaints made by citizens (they do on occasion have to measure characters, simply because there is no other way). The relevant excerpt from La Charte appears below.

Charter of the French language (R.S.Q., c. C-11, s. 93; 1993, c. 40, s. 37)

1. In signs and posters of the civil administration, public signs and posters and posted commercial advertising that are both in French and in another language, French is markedly predominant where the text in French has a much greater visual impact than the text in the other language.

2. Where texts both in French and in another language appear on the same sign or poster. the text in French is deemed to have a much greater visual impact if the following conditions are met:

(1) the space allotted to the text in French is at least twice as large as the space allotted to the text in the other language:

(2) the characters used in the text in French are at least twice as large as those used in the text in the other language; and

(3) the other characteristics of the sign or poster do not have the effect of reducing the visual impact of the text in French.

Quebec's legislation originally required all commercial signs to be in French only. The Supreme Court of Canada deemed such measure unconstitutional but found Quebec's objectives in legislating on language use legitimate and it is the Canadian Supreme Court that suggested a law requiring French to be "markedly predominant". Below is an excerpt from the Canadian Supreme Court's decision.

Decision of the Supreme Court of Canada On the Language of Signs in Quebec
(Ford, Brown et al. V. Attorney-General of Quebec)
As summarised from the Montreal Gazette, Friday, December 16, 1988, pp. B 4-5

"The causal factors for the threatened position of the French language that have generally been identified are: (a) the declining birth rate of Quebec francophones resulting in a decline in the Quebec francophone proportion of the Canadian population as a whole; (b) the decline of the francophone population outside Quebec as a result of assimilation; (c) the greater rate of assimilation of immigrants to Quebec by the anglophone community of Quebec; and (d) the continuing dominance of English at the higher levels of the economic sector. These factors have favored the use of the English language despite the predominance in Quebec of a francophone population. Thus, in the period prior to the enactment of the legislation at issue, the ‘visage linguistique’ of Quebec often gave the impression that English had become as significant as French. This ‘visage linguistique’ reinforced the concern among francophones that English was gaining in importance, that the French language was threatened and that it would ultimately disappear. It strongly suggested to young and ambitious francophones that the language of success was almost exclusively English. It confirmed to anglophones that there was no great need to learn the majority language. An it suggested to immigrants that the prudent course lay in joining the anglophone community.
"The materials establish that the aim of the language policy underlying the Charter of the French Language was a serious and legitimate one. They indicate the concern about the survival of the French language and the perceived need for an adequate legislative response to the problem. Moreover, they indicate a rational connection between protecting the French language and assuring that the reality of Quebec society is communicated through the ‘visage linguistique’.

"The materials do not, however, demonstrate that the requirement of the use of French only is either necessary for the achievement of the legislative objective or proportionate to it. That specific question is simply not addressed by the materials. Indeed, in his factum and oral argument the Attorney general of Quebec did not attempt to justify the requirement of the exclusive use of French. He concentrated on the reasons for the adoption of the Charter of the French Language [...]. The Attorney General of Quebec relied on what he referred to as the general democratic legitimacy of Quebec language policy without referring explicitly to the requirement of the exclusive use of French.
"The issue is whether any such prohibition is justified. In the opinion of this Court it has not been demonstrated that the prohibition of the use of any language other than French on Sects. 58 and 69 of the Charter of the French Language is necessary to the defence and enhancement of the status of the French language in Quebec or that it is proportionate to that legislative purpose" Since the evidence put to us by the government showed that the predominance of the French language was not reflected in the ‘visage linguistique’ of Quebec, the governmental response could well have been tailored to meet that specific problem and to impair freedom of expression minimally. Thus, whereas requiring the predominant display of the French language, even its marked predominance, would be proportional to the goal of promoting and maintaining a French ‘visage linguistique’ in Quebec and therefore justified under Sect 9.1 of the Quebec Charter and Sect. 1 of the Canadian Charter, requiring the exclusive use of French has not been so justified. French could be required in addition to any other language or it could be required to have greater visibility than that accorded to other languages. Such measures would ensure that the 'visage linguistique’ reflected the demography of Quebec: the predominant language is French. This reality should be communicated to all citizens and non-citizens alike, irrespective of their mother tongue. But exclusivity for the French language has not survived the scrutiny of a proportionality test and does not reflect the reality of Quebec society. Accordingly, we are of the view that the limit imposed on freedom of expression by Sect. 58 of the Charter of the French Language respecting the exclusive use of French on public signs and posters and in commercial advertising is not justified [...].

English in Quebec

Setting aside the omnipresence of American and Canadian magazines, newspapers, music, tv shows, computer software and videogames in Quebec, the English language still occupies a prominent place in the province, despite all claims to the contrary.

- Approximately 25% of elementary and secondary school students in Quebec receive their instruction in English.

- Near 40% of University students in Montreal attend an English university.(McGill: 29,729, Concordia 25 000) ( M. & affiliated schools: 47 000, UQAM: 39 000)

- 2 of the 12 daily newspapers in Quebec are published in English.

- 19% of magazines and other periodicals published in Quebec are in English.

- There are 15 English radio stations in Quebec (vs. 11 in 1970).

- 35% of all movies shown in theaters are in English.

source: Office de la langue Française

Fun Facts...


Results of the National Referendum on Prohibition (Sept. 29, 1898)

Province % Favourable % Opposed
Ontario 57.3 42.7
Nova Scotia 87.2 12.8
New Brunswick 72.2 27.7
P. E. I. 89.2 10.8
Manitoba 80.6 19.4
British Columbia 54.6 45.3
Sask + Alberta 68.8 31.2
Quebec 18.5 81.5
All of Canada 51.2 48.8

The other side of the story

It is very interesting to look at the issue of linguistic legislation in Quebec from the point of view of the anglophone community. Founded in 1982, Alliance Quebec is by far the most vocal and politically active organization "committed to the preservation and enhancement of the English-speaking communities and institutions within Quebec." The following is part of a document titled “The Historical Background of the Situation of English-speaking Quebecers” written by William Johnson , President of Alliance Quebec. The full text and other related documents are available here. For more documents and related links, visit Alliance Quebec's website at

[From the Alliance-Quebec website] English-speaking people living in Quebec - the Anglos, as they are often called - are caught in a paradox. On the one hand, they seem to be the luckiest of citizens. On average, they are better educated than other English-speaking people in Canada or than their French-speaking fellow citizens in Quebec. They earn, on average, better salaries than the average Quebecer. And, being far more numerous than any other official language minority (in fact, their numbers just about equal the combined total of all francophones in Canada outside Quebec), they can enjoy amenities in their language of which their francophone cousins can only dream.

At the same time, though, Quebec’s Anglos are the only official language minority that lives under a provincial law designed specifically to limit the use of their language, to restrict access to their schools, to make it difficult to work in their mother tongue, to keep them from being too visible, to prevent immigrants from melding into their community. They are the only official language community whose rights and amenities are being reduced, while all the others see their rights and their recognition enhanced.

Want More?

For more information on Quebec's linguistic policies, visit l'Office de la langue française or read this great document from the Ministry of International Relations: "Laws and Language in Québec: The principles and means of Québec's language policy"