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Bill 101

Construction sign on Highway 30 in Quebec (2012). Eltiempo10 via Wikimedia.

Introducing Bill 101

Quebec has a long history of action to protect its heritage, culture, and language. At the time of the Quiet Revolution, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, and after, there was a new sense of urgency around the protection of the French language in the province. The Royal Commission had found significant disparity between the economic circumstances of francophones and anglophones in Quebec, limited representation of francophones in the federal government, and little availability of French language services outside of Quebec. Building on school-related language protection laws introduced by the Liberal government under Robert Bourassa, in 1977 the newly-elected Parti Québécois took further action, introducing Bill 101, the Charte de la langue française.

Once passed in the Assemblée nationale, French became the official language of government, education, business, and communication in the province. A series of court cases whittled down some areas of Bill 101 (such as the section requiring all educational instruction to be in French, or that French be the sole language expressed in legislative assemblies). Yet, despite these adjustments, Bill 101 guaranteed that most of everyday life in Quebec occurs in French, with workplaces, schools, and government services mandated to speak and write in the province’s official language.

In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada revoked French-only provisions present in Bill 101 citing constitutional violations as per section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, the Government of Quebec invoked the notwithstanding clause to uphold the legislation.

Effects of Bill 101

Labour and Relocation…

Bill 101 has had an important effect on labour in the province. Labour was prominently impacted as the requirement that French be included all on business documents and internal communication, led English companies and workers to relocate.

As part of fundamental language rights, Bill 101 also establishes that workers have a right to carry on their activities in French, and for consumers to be informed or served in French. While other languages can be expressed, employees have the right to request any professional documentation or message be conveyed to them in French. No person can be denied or fired from their employment due to a lack of knowledge in a language besides French unless the duties of the job specifically require it. The statutory strength of Quebec’s Bill 101 gives it the authority to dictate a large degree of the province’s external business and labour-related interactions as well.

“Bonjour Hello”

A common practice in the relatively bilingual city of Montreal, is for businesses to greet customers by saying “Bonjour Hello.” To this end, 2015 data from the Office québécois de la langue française showed a decrease in French-only business greetings from 84 percent to 75 percent. Political supporters of Bill 101’s French language protectionist policies were alarmed by this trend and in 2017, the Assemblée nationale passed a motion to encourage “all businesses and workers who enter into contact with local and international clients to welcome them warmly with ‘Bonjour.’” Further, in October 2019 Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette contemplated a proposal to completely ban the usage of “Bonjour Hello,” however this was abandoned following a negative public reaction.

Public Signage

One of the most hotly contested aspects of Bill 101 is that it requires that public signs, posters, and commercial advertising be in French. Other languages can be visible as long as French is marked more predominantly. Exceptions to this rule exist such as for signage that is aimed at directly informing a non-French speaking group, at an event, or if the Quebec government invokes its power to make an exemption for a particular company or business. However, corporations have fought to protect their specific international brand recognition. In the case of Magasins Best Buy Ltée v. Procureur général du Québec, it was found that corporate or business names must be presented in compliance with Bill 101, however, trademarks registered outside of Quebec that distinguish the product generated by a company do not require generic French words to be inserted or to replace the existing trademark. Slogans, terms, and description trademarks also maintain protection from Bill 101. While trademarks themselves couldn’t be altered, in November 2016 the Quebec government amended Bill 101 to circumvent the decision.

When Bill 101’s laws are being applied at sites that provide essential services, there are additional exceptions related to minority language rights exist. Bill 101 stipulates that services in healthcare must be offered in English and French. However, in January 2019 the Quebec government ordered the Lachute hospital to remove its bilingual signage to meet Bill 101’s signage requirements. Questions arose about the overlapping of these two areas of Bill 101’s mandates. Are signs that say “X-Ray” or “Emergency” subjected to ordinary signage requirements? Or do they fall under the umbrella of Bill 101’s health exemptions?

The Future of Bill 101

In 2021, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), signalled that they are looking to rework Bill 101 to strengthen French usage. Having gotten little support from constituencies in Montreal in their 2018 majority winning election, it seems possible that the issue surrounding unilingual business salutation is soon to be revisited. Four decades after its passage, debate over Bill 101 rages on.

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Contributors: Bryce Beer, Ingrid Kaffka, and Rhys Fitzpatrick