Nick Backovic spoke a mix of English and Croatian when he started his first year in a French-language elementary school in Montreal in the 1980s. He says he barely understood what was going on.
“I basically went over into a French school overnight,” said Backovic, whose parents are Serbo-Croatian. “And I didn’t know a single word of French, so it was pretty confusing to say the least.”
It has been 40 years since Quebec adopted its landmark Charter of the French Language — Bill 101 — on Aug. 26, 1977, in a bid to bolster and protect the French language while freeing the province from the dominance of English. It was a decision that would forever change the linguistic makeup of Quebec.
Backovic was among the first wave of thousands of young students who were permitted to study only in French for both elementary and high school.
The contentious piece of legislation would pave the way for the francization of the province’s government, businesses, workplaces and education system.
While it has been hailed as a watershed moment for Quebec francophones and their place in society, it has also prompted criticism and protests from English-language rights groups that felt silenced.
At the time, many English-speaking Quebecers felt unwelcome in their own province, leading to a mass exodus of anglophones. Many allophones (people whose first language is neither French nor English) also left.
“Without Bill 101, Montreal would be an English-speaking city predominantly right now,” said Jean Dorion, the former Bloc Québécois MP who, as political attaché for the cabinet of Gérald Godin, was the minister in charge of implementing the charter.
One of the most controversial parts of the bill that remains intact today specifies that the only students permitted to enrol in English-language schools are those with at least one parent who was educated in English in Quebec or elsewhere in Canada.
With a few rare exceptions, francophone and allophone students must attend school in French.
That means in Quebec, the number of allophone students who study in French elementary and high schools has risen dramatically since the implementation of Bill 101.
As of 2015, about 85 per cent of young allophones attend French schools. In 1971, it was only 14.6 per cent, according to the Quebec Office of the French Language (OQLF).
Students of Bill 101 today
While Bill 101 was adopted at a time when the French language and culture was struggling to flourish, some political leaders say the legislation’s greatest achievement is that it gives young allophones the ability to integrate into Quebec’s predominantly French-speaking society.
“Bill 101 was especially effective in directing immigrants to the French school system. That was the main merit of the law,” said Dorion, who is also the former president of the Societé Saint-Jean-Baptiste, which promotes and protects French language and culture.
Former Quebec premier and PQ leader Pauline Marois put it another way: “It perfectly reached its goal of integrating, welcoming and educating young kids of immigrants.”
That was the case for Laura Silva, a student at Dawson College who moved to Quebec at age three from Colombia. She studied in French for both elementary and high school before opting to pursue post-secondary studies in English.
“I remember my parents being really amazed by how fast I learned the language because they were always afraid of how it was going to be for us, going to school, if the adaptation was going to be difficult,” said Silva, who is trilingual.
“But it turns out it was pretty easy,” she said. “It took me so little to actually learn French.”
While many students whose mother tongue is neither of Canada’s official languages seem grateful to have benefited from their French-language education, some also wish they had the opportunity to study in English before adulthood.
“What I find that doesn’t make sense is that it’s like ‘Go in French, go in French, go in French,'” said Dawson College student Félicia Cà, daughter of a francophone Québecois mother and a French and Creole-speaking father from Guinea-Bissau.
“But then when you go to get a job” — she says with hands on hips — “it’s like ‘You don’t have your English?’ and it’s like you don’t even allow me to have my English.”
Backovic, now 36 and living in the U.K., believes that linguistic identity in Quebec remains complex and he says he understands the desire to protect the French language.
As the child of immigrants from the former Yugoslavia, it took him years to adapt and learn French.
And he said he isn’t sure he benefited more from attending French-language school than those who attended school in English.
“I’m trying to think about my anglophone friends who don’t speak French and, I mean, there’s very few of them. So I don’t know if there’s an extra benefit,” he said.
What’s the future of Bill 101?
While Bill 101 remains a thorn in the side of many English-speaking Quebecers, some argue that more needs to be done to ensure that the French language survives.
The PQ, the left-leaning sovereignist party that first brought in Bill 101, has been long committed to extending the law beyond elementary and high school, to cover post-secondary CEGEPs.
But Dorion says that would be hard to enforce, given that many students of this generation want to learn English.
As of 2015, nearly one-third of students enroled in English-language CEGEPs are francophones, according to the OQLF.
“It probably is one of the most contentious issues right now, but we must not forget the progresses that French made in many other respects,” Dorion said.
Forty years later, the debate continues.
Following the release of incorrect data by Statistics Canada, a number of Quebec politicians recently called for even stricter French-language protections, citing the dramatic increase in English-mother-tongue residents.
PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée went so far as to propose another French-language charter, promising to pass a Bill 202 within the first 101 days of a PQ government.