CBC reported that Quebec’s Liberal government plans to reintroduce legislation to replace Bill 104, which the Supreme Court of Canada ruled over the summer was unconstitutional.  This marks the beginning of another chapter in the ongoing drama surrounding the language of instruction debate in Quebec.

As a very brief history, the linguistic legal battles in Quebec began around the language of legislation and the administration of justice.  Consider section 133 of the Constitution Act:

Either the English or the French Language may be used by any Person in the Debates of the Houses of the Parliament of Canada and of the Houses of the Legislature of Quebec; and both those Languages shall be used in the respective Records and Journals of those Houses; and either of those Languages may be used by any Person or in any Pleading or Process in or issuing from any Court of Canada established under this Act, and in or from all or any of the Courts of Quebec… The Acts of the Parliament of Canada and of the Legislature of Quebec shall be printed and published in both those Languages.

In 1977, the Parti Québécois government of René Lévesque (links to wikipedia) brought in The Charter of the French Language, which defined French as the sole official language of Quebec and created broad language rights for every person in the province, particularly related to commercial signs and the language of instruction for schoolchildren.  During the late 1970s and early 1980s, English-speaking lawyers in Quebec succeeded in having the Supreme Court of Canada strike down certain provisions of the Charter of the French Language as unconstitutional, specifically those dealing with the language of legislation and the administration of justice.

Chapter VIII of the Charter of the French Language deals with the language of instruction and includes in s. 73 criteria enabling certain children to receive education in English.  After the advent of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Supreme Court of Canada, in Quebec (AG) v. Quebec Protestant School Boards, ruled that some of the provisions contained in the original version of s. 73 were unconstitutional.  The provincial government revised the eligibility criteria, and in Gosselin v. Quebec (AG) the Supreme Court of Canada held that those revised criteria were constitutionally valid.  Section 73 now reads as follows:

The following children, at the request of one of their parents, may receive instruction in English:

(1) a child whose father or mother is a Canadian citizen and received elementary instruction in English in Canada, provided that that instruction constitutes the major part of the elementary instruction he or she received in Canada;
(2) a child whose father or mother is a Canadian citizen and who has received or is receiving elementary or secondary instruction in English in Canada, and the brothers and sisters of that child, provided that that instruction constitutes the major part of the elementary or secondary instruction received by the child in Canada;
(3) a child whose father and mother are not Canadian citizens, but whose father or mother received elementary instruction in English in Québec, provided that that instruction constitutes the major part of the elementary instruction he or she received in Québec;
(4) a child who, in his last year in school in Québec before 26 August 1977, was receiving instruction in English in a public kindergarten class or in an elementary or secondary school, and the brothers and sisters of that child;
(5) a child whose father or mother was residing in Québec on 26 August 1977 and had received elementary instruction in English outside Québec, provided that that instruction constitutes the major part of the elementary instruction he or she received outside Québec…

Bill 104 was enacted to tighten the loopholes used by some parents to squeeze their children into the English school system.  In October of this year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Nguyen v. Quebec (Education, Recreation and Sports) that Bill 104 is unconstitutional.  This recent announcement by the provincial government will continue the debates carried out in these decisions.

A footnote for those unfamiliar with Quebec linguistic politics: a language law remains a “Bill” in public discourse among English publications in Quebec because even after it is passed it is hotly contested.