[lg policy] Fifty Years Later: The Rise and Fall of the Parti Québécois - Part Three

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed May 29 11:09:49 EDT 2019

Fifty Years Later: The Rise and Fall of the Parti Québécois - Part Three

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Tuesday, 28 May 2019 Julien Arseneau

*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 <http://www.marxiste.qc.ca/>*

< 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

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
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

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
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
2015, when a hospital was instructed to remove bilingual signs at the
demand of the OQLF.  A similar episode happened recently where the OQLF
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
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
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Toronto#Languages> Toronto
 and <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Vancouver#Languages>
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
<https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/jan/18.htm>: “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

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

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 an


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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