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Saving French in Quebec: When Language Isn’t Enough

In 1976, when the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ) won the majority of seats in Quebec’s National Assembly, giving it control of the provincial government, many thought that the party’s goal was to save French culture and the French language in Canada.  It is, however, much more complicated than that.

The PQ was founded in 1967 by the ex-Liberal minister René Lévesque.  It espoused three principles: social democracy, “sovereignty association” (a separate government that maintains economic ties with Canada), and the preservation of the French language.  But the Parti Québécois was not a nationalist party created to separate Quebec from the rest of Canada.  The charismatic Lévesque had served as a war correspondent in France and Germany during World War II, and his experience of Nazism turned him against nationalist movements.

The PQ sought to establish a secular modern state defined by “civic nationalism,” not a state linked to a specific ethnic group.  A few months after taking power, the PQ passed Bill 101, La charte de la langue française (The Charter of the French Language).  The Liberal government’s Bill 22 (1974) had declared French to be the only official language of Quebec, but this law had been challenged by McGill University legal scholars as a violation of the British North America Act (1867), which...

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