First Published: The Worker, Vol 10, No 25, November 22, 1978
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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Perhaps the most immediate impact of the Parti Quebecois nationalist program has come from Bill 101, the legislation making French the province’s “official language”. Passed in late August of 1977, its provisions extend to such areas as language of education, work, business, publicity and advertising matter, and signs. Much of the legislation reflects the narrow self-interest of Quebec’s petty bourgeoisie, whom the PQ represents; for example, the law’s preoccupation with professional associations and executive functions of businesses.
Parts of Bill 101 also mirror what Lenin called the nationalist petty bourgeoisie’s “tendency to reduce the national movement to a petty squabble...disputes and scuffles over the question, for instance, of which languages shall have precedence in two-language street signs.” (Collected Works, Vol. 23, p. 61). Lenin also noted the petty bourgeoisie’s tendency to waver and compromise on the national question. For example, the PQ has backed down under pressure from the biggest capitalist multinationals, and agreed to let Montreal head offices continue to operate in English.
Nevertheless, the Bill is based on broadly democratic propositions. It takes several concrete steps against the historic oppression of the French language, it guarantees that Quebec will never become another Manitoba, and at the same time it provides the English and other minorities within Quebec with more linguistic rights than any other province has yet recognized. Bill 101 allows children of parents educated in English within Quebec the right to continued English instruction. This is more than any other province is prepared to do with French. It also recognizes Cree and Inuit as languages of education, and in general exempts the Crees, the Inuit and the Naskapi of Schefferville from the law’s provisions. Accompanying this legislation have been measures to allow children of immigrants to receive some of their primary education in their maternal language – Greek, Portuguese and Italian, for example.
We by no means intend to hold up Bill 101 as a model of democratic language legislation, and many of its provisions are being carried out in a half-hearted manner. Without a doubt, the nationalist petty bourgeoisie of Quebec would like to put itself in a privileged position. However the law protects minorities more consistently than anything existing elsewhere in Canada.
Therefore, it is striking that virtually every party of “the left”, with the exception of the Canadian Party of Labour, has chosen to attack and denounce this legislation because it is “nationalist” and does not “protect the rights of immigrants and the English minority”. On the surface, most of these organizations appear to be opposed to national oppression. The revolutionary slogan “Quebec’s right to self determination, up to secession” can be easily found in their literature. But beneath a thin veil of demagogy, the most craven great-nation chauvinism pervades the program of these organizations.
The Communist Party of Canada (pro-Moscow) claims that the Quebec language law “corresponds in general to the communist language policy” (Combat, Special congress, June 1977, p. 7). But after several paragraphs of platitudes, “Catch 22” appears: “The 6th congress of the Communist Party of Quebec believes that the workers and other democratic forces must reject all attempts to solve the problem of discrimination against French-speaking workers by the application of a policy of discrimination towards immigrants and minorities in Quebec.” It continues: “no privilege for any nationality or any language; no discrimination against any nationality or any language.” In another article, by party leader William Kashtan, we find: “The party . . . is opposed to all propositions that take back freedom of choice in language of education from all Quebeckers.” (Pour l’autodetermination du Quebec,1978, p. 27).
In the context of modern Quebec, these abstract remarks amount to a chauvinist appeal directed at immigrants and the English minority in Quebec to “fight for their rights”. In the case of Quebec’s English population, these so-called “rights” are nothing more than privileges. In the case of Quebec’s immigrants, the “rights” slogan is an attempt to enlist them into the privileged, oppressor nationality within Quebec. To talk of immigrants’ rights to their maternal language is quite another thing (and one the PQ has gone further to protect than any other Canadian government). But the CP is talking about the immigrants’ rights to English schooling.
The CP program hopes to make the revisionism palatable to Quebecois workers, by paying lip service to the rights of the French language. But it is also opportunistically aimed at inciting the English Canadian and immigrant workers in a chauvinist campaign around “language rights”. It is no more and no less than what Trudeau stands for (he on the one hand poses as a defender of the French language, and would no doubt agree with much of the spirit of Bill 101; but he also insists on “bilingualism” throughout Canada, which in practice has always meant defense of English privilege within Quebec).
The Communist Party of Canada is a master of such demagogy. It is a loyal pupil of Brezhnev, who poses as a defender of oppressed nations yet can happily order an invasion of Czechoslovakia, or the constitutional withdrawal of protection of the Georgian language within the USSR. We invite our readers to ask themselves if a party that can justify Russian tanks in Prague (in defense of “socialism”, of course) cannot also justify Canadian tanks in Montreal (in the interests of “anti-imperialism”)?