We publish here a translation of part three of a four-part article on the history of the Parti Québécois (PQ) written by Julien Arseneau, member of the editorial board of the Quebec Marxist journal and website, La Riposte socialiste

< Part two

The language question

Another essential aspect of the PQ’s policy was the question of the French language. This question had an enormous impact on Quebec politics throughout the 1960s and ’70s in particular. At the time, the oppression of the francophones and the francophone working class especially was one of the most egregious elements of the colonial domination of Canada over Quebec. English was the language of business and the language of work and francophone workers received some of the lowest wages in the province. Almost all of the big businesses were owned by anglophone imperialists from English Canada or the United States.

It was even often the case that unions of francophone workers were forced to negotiate in English with anglophone capitalists. It wasn’t until 1964 that the labour code was changed to allow the workers to choose the language of their collective bargaining agreement. It was a common occurrence that businesses would have all of their signage only in English. For most good jobs, the ability to speak English was often a requirement, which barred access for the vast majority of the francophone population. Describing the general situation in Quebec at the time, a high-ranking civil servant in the Québec Ministry of Natural Resources noted in 1965:

Go to Rouyn-Noranda. There you will see two economies that live side by side. The small economy, that of the French Canadians: the garages, gas stations, grocery stores… All of these people are a large majority French Canadian. Next to this, or on on the margins of this, you have the Noranda (Noranda mines), the big economy of the area. As you progress upwards in this economy, you live in English, work in English and live in a neighbourhood that is not that of the gas station attendant or the grocer—this is not by accident—you are mostly among English Canadians.

In order to justify this blatant discrimination, racist stereotypes were quite often used against the Québécois. Common insults like “Speak white!” symbolized the fact that many anglophones saw the francophones as inferiors and treated them as such. The francophone population developed a burning anger and a desire to fight against oppression. Fighting against discrimination by the Anglo-imperialists became more and more a rallying point for workers and youth in Quebec. This led to many spontaneous outbursts and mass movements as was seen during the Rocket Richard riot of 1955.

In 1962, the president of the Canadian National Railways (CNR), Gordon Brown, was questioned at a parliamentary committee on the fact that none of the 17 vice-presidents of the company were francophone. His response was typical. He said that promotions were “based on merit”. This provoked anger in the nationalist movement and led to an anti-Gordon demonstration organised by university students on Dec. 11, 1962, where a few hundred participated and 12 were arrested. At its 1962 Congress, the FTQ adopted an emergency resolution condemning Gordon’s statement. The FTQ also decided to urge its affiliated locals to negotiate in the language spoken by the majority of the workers in any given factory.

On March 28, 1969, the student movement “Opération McGill français” held a mass demonstration in favour of making McGill a francophone university. This was at a time where three of the four university campuses in Montreal were anglophone and where McGill in particular represented colonial domination exercised by the imperialists. This was explained in a special document produced by the McGill student paper The McGill Daily, “McGill is in the service of foreign elites who for 200 years have controlled Quebec. […] The businesses with which McGill maintains relations do not only exploit the workers: they have the same relationship with Quebec as the ‘United Fruit’ company does with banana republics in Latin America.” The demonstration, the largest since World War II, attracted 10,000 workers and youth.

In the 1970s, strikes were led by francophone workers to force their anglophone bosses to make French the language of the workplace. This demand came mostly from private sector unions where American or English Canadian companies dominated and imposed English onto francophone workers. One of the most notable strikes was at the General Motors factory in Sainte-Thérèse in 1970. This was part of a larger strike of GM workers across North America. However, at Sainte-Thérèse, the 2,300 workers added the demand that French should become the language of the workplace.

In his Histoire des TCA au Québec, Yvon Roberge explains that:

It was not rare for a worker to be disciplined for refusing to obey, when the reason was simply that he did not understand the foreman’s instructions. It was impossible to be understood in French in this factory and the promotions always went to unilingual anglophone workers.

The workers were also fighting so that their salaries and benefits were same as GM workers in Ontario. Union members in Sainte-Thérèse even continued to strike for two months after the end of the conflict in the rest of Canada and the United States.

There was also a very revealing event that took place during the strike when René Lévesque went to visit the striking workers. He told them: “It is not up to 2,000 brave Quebecois to carry Quebec on their shoulders. Return to work, we will deal with the problem.” Two different approaches are exposed here. On one hand, the workers use class struggle methods to fight against oppression. And then there are petty bourgeois nationalists like René Lévesque who tells the workers to go back to work and leave it to the bourgeois state to solve the problem.

French language laws

Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, attempts were made by various governments to respond to the aspirations of the francophone population through laws regulating language usage. However, the different solutions put forward by the Union Nationale and the Liberals did not end up satisfying the francophone or anglophone populations. The PQ promised to resolve this question once and for all. This pushed a considerable portion of the francophone population to consider the PQ as the only party that would defend them. These promises were concretized in Bill 101 (the Charter of the French language) adopted in 1977. This law made French the official language of Quebec for many spheres of life: the legal system, business, government, teaching, signage, etc.

The vast majority of the francophone population supported this bill because of the oppression they had suffered. The desire to be able to live in your mother tongue and to not be discriminated against on this basis is obviously a progressive yearning. It is the desire to not be oppressed. The provisions in Law 101 aimed at guaranteeing the right to work in French and to put an end to the discrimination against francophones in the hiring process, and to promote making businesses operate in French in order to respond to this desire. Bosses complained that these restrictive measures would lead to them pulling their businesses out of the province. In spite of the outrage of the big businesses who denounced these measures, the law had the desired effect. With the adoption of this law, the bosses could no longer force their employees to speak English. The worst manifestations of the linguistic oppression of the francophones began to disappear. This is the reason why Law 101 remains to this day very popular among francophones, in particular among the older generation who remember the oppression they experienced. 

It is undeniable that many aspects of Bill 101 and other language policies were steps forward in the progressive struggle against oppression. However, just like any other phenomenon, it is necessary to distinguish what is progressive from what is reactionary. In the case of language, it is possible, while struggling against oppression and language imposition, to go too far and defend measures that promote division.

For example, the 1977 version of Bill 101 made it obligatory for government bodies and businesses to have all of their signage and communications in French only. This was to be true even in communities with sizeable English speaking minorities. This bill enlarged the prerogatives of the Office québécois de la langue française (Quebec Board of the French Language), whose job it was to make sure these new laws were followed. This bureaucratic approach to the question inevitably leads to absurd decisions. For example, in 2015, the OQLF told the city of St-Lazare that it had to remove English from its welcome signs so that they were only in French. This was all the more absurd considering that a sizeable (around one third) of the population of St-Lazare is anglophone. But this did not matter because the rule stipulates that anglophones must account for at least 50 per cent of the population in order to have the right to bilingual signage, and St-Lazare no longer met this criteria. The result of these measures is to alienate English-speaking and immigrant workers in Quebec and fuel conflicts for no good reason.

Another case was in Gaspé in 2015, when a hospital was instructed to remove bilingual signs at the demand of the OQLF.  A similar episode happened recently where the OQLF demanded that a hospital in Lachute remove English signage in a place where 17 per cent of the population is anglophone. This decision was denounced by the nine mayors of the Argenteuil area serviced by this hospital (three anglophones and six francophones). These types of decisions can only promote resentment among linguistic minorities and divisions on linguistic lines. In addition, we are not talking here about a menu or a billboard, but information which is potentially crucial for the health and safety of the public. Particularly with regard to hospitals and other public institutions, signs and information of public interest should be available in as many languages as necessary.

Even in the labour movement, there have been cases where measures in favour of French have gone too far. For example, during their congress of 1971, the FTQ voted in favour of French being the only official language not only of the state, but also inside the union. This resolution called on the union federation to put an end to simultaneous translation at their congresses and to publish documents only in French, while vaguely saying that anglophones must be able to communicate and receive services from the union in their language. There is nothing here that could unite workers in Quebec from different linguistic groups and origins.

The education system

As for the schools, the policies adopted by the PQ and also by the Liberals were also divisive. Until the end of the 1990s, the education system in Quebec was divided on religious lines with Catholic and Protestant school boards. The Lesage Liberals didn’t change this with their education reform in the early 1960s.

In 1997, the PQ put an end to this with a reform, but in doing so only created a new division, this time on linguistic lines. Separating children along linguistic lines only creates a breeding ground for reactionary arguments on both sides of the divide. Tension is maintained between people who never speak to each other and spend almost no time with each other from a very young age. The result of much of these policies is division more than anything else.

It was Lenin who elaborated the Marxist program on the national question and questions related to this. This was not by accident: at the time, Russia was considered to be a “prison house of nations”. Under the tsarist regime the Great Russians, representing 43 per cent of the population, enslaved the 57 per cent which was composed of various other national groups, depriving them of fundamental rights. Lenin gave special particular importance to the struggle against national oppression and developed a political program from which we can draw inspiration to this day. On the question of schools, he was firmly opposed to any division, whether it was on national, linguistic, religious lines or any other. Lenin even opposed the creation of private Jewish schools, despite the fact that the Jews were probably the most oppressed and persecuted minority in Europe. The position of Lenin was simple. He was against all oppression, against any violation of minority rights, and for the bringing together of different nationalities and the absolute unity of workers of all origins. He explained that the rights of minorities must be protected while fighting against any national division:

And yet, if the constitution of the country contained a fundamental law rendering null and void every measure that infringed the rights of a minority, any citizen would be able to demand the rescinding of orders prohibiting, for example, the hiring, at state expense, of special teachers of Hebrew, Jewish history, and the like, or the provision of state-owned premises for lectures for Jewish, Armenian, or Rumanian children, or even for the one Georgian child. At all events, it is by no means impossible to meet, on the basis of equality, all the reasonable and just wishes of the national minorities, and nobody will say that advocacy of equality is harmful. On the other hand, it would certainly be harmful to advocate division of schools according to nationality, to advocate, for example, special schools for Jewish children in St. Petersburg, and it would be utterly impossible to set up national schools for every national minority, for one, two or three children.

In Quebec, there is no reason to divide the education system according to language. By liberating the enormous resources that exist but are wasted under the capitalist system, we could provide quality education for all, in the languages needed to meet the needs of different local communities. In addition, there would be no reason for children of different languages to receive their education in separate schools. In any given community, we could have classes in French, English, Native languages, etc. with all students in the same building. Children would become accustomed from an early age to hanging out with people from different backgrounds or languages rather than living separately, as is more often than not the case today in Quebec.

Marxism and the language question

The Marxist position on this question is negative. We are firmly against oppression based on language or any other criteria. We do not take a positive position in favour of one language, nationality or culture. The only group that we identify with is the working class. For this reason, we are in favour of the greatest possible unity of the working class, beyond any difference of language or nationality, because only the united working class is capable of overthrowing capitalism and building a socialist society. We stand firmly against Anglo-chauvinism and nationalism of all sorts, because this only serves to weaken our class by dividing it and fomenting tensions with in it, and because this feeds into the illusion that workers have common interests with the bourgeoisie of their nationality. The workers, whether they are Québécois, Canadian, anglophone, francophone, Indigenous, or immigrant, share the same interests: the overthrow of the colonial Canadian state and the capitalist economic system that it defends. That which contributes to uniting the working class is therefore progressive, and that which contributes to dividing it is reactionary. Anyone who claims to be fighting against capitalism must start from these principles.

In contrast, taking a positive position to be for a particular language and its bureaucratic imposition inevitably leads to reactionary conclusions. We can see this in particular with the sacred principle of the Québécois nationalist movement to “protect the French language.” This idea is very popular among nationalists on the right and on the left. But this position leaves the door open to pit one section of the working class against the other and gives credence to the racists and identitarian nationalists. For example, during the 2018 election campaign Francois Legault, to justify his pledge to reduce the number of immigrants allowed into Quebec, stated that “There is a risk, Quebec and French are always vulnerable. It is the responsibility of the premier to protect the nation, to protect French in Quebec.” Legault then said that he would expel immigrants if they have not learned French in three years.

Every year, statistics are published on linguistic demographics in Quebec and a lamentable chorus is sounded about the declining percentage of mother-tongue French speakers in the province. But in reality, English as a mother-tongue language is also in decline which is explained by immigration from other linguistic groups such as Arabic speakers, Spanish speakers, etc. In fact, this is the same trend occurring in other big Canadian cities, like Toronto and Vancouver. Of course, the far right uses this to spread hatred against immigrants. On the other hand, it is unfortunate that some on the left, or even some people who call themselves Marxists, fall into the trap.  

Francophones fought to put an end to hundreds of years of linguistic oppression. Putting an end to this oppression was a very progressive victory. However, anyone who uses the oppression of francophones to oppress and impose on other groups is only using the fight against the oppression of francophones to hide their own chauvinism. The so-called left-winger who is prepared to trample the linguistic rights of the anglophone minority of Quebec, of Indigenous peoples, or of immigrants in the name of “protecting the French language” abandons his class brothers and sisters and joins the camp of the francophone bourgeoisie.

But what is the socialist solution to the language question?

Marxists are against the forced imposition of any language or discrimination based on language. This means we are opposed to an official language, imposed by the state. The solution for one group is not to impose their language on others bureaucratically. As Lenin explained: “What we do not want is the element of coercion. We do not want to have people driven into paradise with a cudgel; for no matter how many fine phrases about ‘culture’ you may utter, a compulsory official language involves coercion”. To do so can only foster resentment of the oppressed linguistic group towards the dominant group, and thus foment division within the working class.

In the context of Quebec, this doesn’t mean that people should not learn French. Of course they should! French is, in most places, a language necessary to get a good job and to participate in society at large. Workers having the ability to be able to communicate with and understand each other can only contribute to uniting the working class which is therefore progressive. Therefore, learning French should be strongly encouraged; however, imposing French through coercion can only lead to reactionary consequences and doesn’t actually help anglophones or allophones to learn French.

If an immigrant or an Anglo-canadian needs to learn French (or any other language) for a specific job, which is quite often the case, this should be provided as part of paid job training. There should be no discrimination based on language in the hiring process. The only imposition should be the imposition on the bosses—forcing them to pay for this. Bourgeois nationalists such as François Legault or Pierre Karl Péladeau will naturally be firmly opposed to any such imposition. In this way we will be able to see that despite the constant hue and cry, the interests of the bosses will always be with their class before any one language. In this line of thought, it is interesting to note that the leader of the “yes” camp during the 1995 referendum, Lucien Bouchard, imposed cuts to French courses for immigrants, closing orientation and training centres when he was premier.

As the famous Québécois trade union leader Michel Chartrand said: “Nationalists are willing to forgive the PQ’s vilest acts. They forget that there is an enormous difference between nationalism and genuine national liberation. This is why I have always been against these ‘nationaleux’ (a pejorative term for nationalist) who want to save the language and let those who speak it croak.”

Under socialism, the working class would have democratic control over the economy and society. Massive funding could be provided for the education system in order to provide free, lifelong education to everyone. Local communities, and not some overzealous bureaucrat, would be able to democratically decide which languages would be necessary to teach their kids. This would be of particular importance for many Indigenous communities. Necessary resources could easily be provided and placed under democratic control of Indigenous communities so that they could teach their children about their history and culture, and to speak their traditional languages.

French would naturally be more often than not the main language taught to kids out of necessity, but in many areas courses would also be taught in English and other languages as necessary. This would facilitate efforts to cut across the national divide and to create the conditions for working class unity. Children do not have a problem learning new languages and can learn different languages from a young age.  As we have said already, courses taught in French, English or any other language could easily be provided in order to educate children in the languages of the community. Through liberating the massive amount of wealth currently being monopolized by the ultra-rich, we would have ample means to offer everyone, children and adults, a huge variety of language courses.

A vast program of French classes (or any language necessary at work) for workers would be a major priority of the new socialist government. This would provide the whole working class with the necessary tools to work in the newly expanded socialist planned economy. Ironically, such a massive investment in linguistic education would certainly have a much greater effect on increasing the number of people who speak French than even the toughest coercive measures.

In his text Critical Remarks on the National Question, written in 1913, Lenin used the example of Switzerland. He explained that there existed three state languages in Switzerland at the time and that legislation was printed in five languages—two dialects of which were spoken by only one per cent of the population. Comparing Switzerland to Russia, Lenin explained that: “If Italians in Switzerland often speak French in their common parliament they do not do so because they are menaced by some savage police law (there are none in Switzerland), but because the civilised citizens of a democratic state themselves prefer a language that is understood by a majority. The French language does not instil hatred in Italians because it is the language of a free civilised nation, a language that is not imposed by disgusting police measures.”

There is no reason why things would be different in Quebec and Canada. With democratic control over the economy, we would have more than enough resources to offer all services, courses and literature in all languages necessary for this or that particular community, whether it is French, English, Indigenous languages, or others. Cultures and languages evolve naturally according to the transformations in a society. Those who do not evolve and change will be rejected by the youth and eventually die. They must be nourished by teaching them to more people, spreading and using them, and not by erecting barriers and creating restrictive laws.