Bill 101, hum… 101… The Sign Law

with 134 comments

montreal english sign

In 1977 The Charter of the French language, a.k.a. bill 101, made it illegal to put up commercial signs in English or any other language but French in the Canadian province of Québec.

From that moment on, French and only French was allowed on storefronts, signs and posters inside stores, billboards and all other signs of a commercial nature.

Yes, Montreal was going to become the first city in the world to have a Chinatown without any visible Chinese alphabet…

That… odd… situation ended in 1993, after quite a few court challenges, when the law was changed to allow other languages on commercial signs as long as French was present and “predominant”. Nonetheless, as the 2008 Irish Pub Troubles demonstrated, the law remained controversial.

Montreal vs. Montréal

In most countries the language of commercial signs is not something that is legislated and to those who know the Montreal of the 21st century where practically all signs are in French, the very idea of regulating the use of other languages might seem a little bit closed-minded. To understand the reason for this regulation, one must absolutely step back a few decades.

Back in the day, French was not so visible in downtown Montreal. American professor Marc Levine wrote in his 1990 book called The Reconquest of Montreal that “before 1960, although Montreal’s linguistic composition was predominantly French, its linguistic character was undeniably English. Montreal was the urban center of English Canada where downtown boardrooms functioned in English, the best neighbourhoods were inhabited by English-speakers, downtown was festooned with billboards and commercial signs in English.”

The sign law was seen by many Francophones as a way to proclaim the end of centuries of Anglo-Saxon domination in Québec and there was certainly some feelings of vindictiveness in the air.

Nonetheless, the French-only rule was a very powerful symbol of the political and economic empowerment of the French-speaking people that were the overwhelming majority in Montreal. It was a way for them to stake a claim on the city, it’s downto…, er, Centre-Ville and it’s boardrooms. It was the unapologetic claim of Montreal by the Québécois as their city and metropolis.

Some English-speaking Montrealers gracefully accepted the new ways. Others left for Toronto. Some took the Québec government to court on constitutional or freedom-of-speech grounds. Others refused to comply.

The pressure did not only come from the English-speaking side of Mount-Royal. When the Supreme Court of Canada struck down parts of the law in 1988, 25 000 people took to the streets of Montreal demanding that the law be maintained intact. This set off a series of events that culminated with Québec nearly leaving Canada in 1995.

Although usually loathed and misunderstood in the 9 other provinces, Québec’s language laws have some strong supporters in… native Canadian communities. The government of Nunavut, a Canadian territory where 83% of the population is Inuit, is currently working on a language law inspired by the one in Québec. (Really. Even the National Post had to deal with it…)

Bill 101 and 86 only apply to commercial signs. Nothing in the law says anything about the language of signs in Churches, non-profit organizations or, of course, private homes. Political organizations are exempt, as are cultural activities. Very bad pop bands like, say, Simple Plan can have English-only posters plastered all over the city if they think it makes them look cooler.

Businesses who do not comply with the sign law can be fined, but only if a private citizen files a complaint and after provincial bureaucrats of the Office Québécois de la Langue Française notifies them and gives them time to modify their signs appropriately. These bureaucrats were nicknamed “Language Police” by angry Anglo shopkeepers, which lead to the widespread myth in Canada that Québec has a uniformed Language Police patrolling the streets of Montreal!

Click here for information on the Charter of the French Language’s School Law.

Written by angryfrenchguy

February 19, 2008 at 10:54 pm

134 Responses

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  1. also if italians, or lebanese or any other cultures have still not lost their languages. so why are you french people freaking out! they could hold on to their languages you could to.


    October 20, 2008 at 1:09 pm

  2. “english signs have to be half the signs of the french signs. what does that mean.”

    The funny thing is, if you go to an english bookstore, the signs in the diffent sections have to be in french first…for english books…


    October 23, 2008 at 12:14 pm

  3. “english signs have to be half the signs of the french signs. what does that mean.”

    The funny thing is, if you go to an english bookstore, the signs in the diffent sections have to be in french first…for english books…”

    English-speaking people are not the only ones reading English books. I buy them all the time. Why should books be exempt from the rules?

    By the way, visit a French library one day, such as Renaud-Bray or Olivieri. You will see that non-fiction books in French and English are side by side on the shelves. Only English bookstores segregate books…


    October 23, 2008 at 4:34 pm

  4. “English-speaking people are not the only ones reading English books. I buy them all the time. Why should books be exempt from the rules?”

    I agree rules are rules, and sometimes rules don’t match the needs. Like when I wait three minutes for a green light at 4 in the morning when I am totally alone in the streets.
    I still obey the rules and wait, even if there is no traffic.


    October 24, 2008 at 11:52 am

  5. “Only English bookstores segregate books”

    That’s right! That must be the insular complex…


    October 24, 2008 at 12:08 pm

  6. My first day back was a little bit rough. ,


    October 22, 2009 at 6:08 am

  7. At the same time, I have to admit that a lot of blacks act exactly as he describes, and unless they get rid of this mindset, they will not become productive members of society. ,


    October 23, 2009 at 5:20 am

  8. Difference between Nunavut’s Inuktituk, our Cree, and Quebecois’ french: One was the local language and one is an immigrant one.

    The argument can be made that a new comer should learn the local language and not the other way around. This argument only works for cree and inuktituk.

    Not for french. French people came some 4 hundred years ago and brought their language, exposed aboriginals to diseases, and depleted local resources.

    What legitimacy does a European language have in North America? What legitimacy does french have over english, german, italian, chinese, or korean?

    Grosso modo, une langue etrangere reste une langue etrangere peu importe la proportion de la population qui la connait. Eduquons la prochaine generation des Quebecois en Cree et en Inuktituk.


    November 29, 2011 at 10:11 pm

  9. I will take your comment seriously when you write it in Cree or Inuktitut.


    December 2, 2011 at 6:06 am

  10. The claim that Québec French is not native to Québec is laughable. It is spoken nowhere else and has been spoken here for hundreds of years. Why not ask the Inuits to cross back to Asia while you’re at it?

    Fact is, Québec protects Native Languages much better than Canada does. Inuktitut is quckly losing ground in Iqualuit and Nunavik as a whole, it is not losing an inch in Northern Québec and even gains speakers among the kids of people that move there, and that’s GREAT. Because in Québec, we recognize the right of indigenous peoples to protect, develop and share their languages.


    December 13, 2011 at 5:44 pm

  11. I’m trying to find information on bill 101 to see if companies situated in Montreal have to have there website in french and english.


    August 10, 2012 at 9:03 am

  12. […] incur vandalism to your property from the zealous separatist element. A few links on the matter Bill 101, hum… 101… The Sign Law | AngryFrenchGuy The actual charter that i presume spells out the legality of posting an English sign on your […]

  13. Imsipesrve brain power at work! Great answer!


    December 29, 2013 at 2:51 pm

  14. Hi Justin,Such boots could actually be a nice chcioe for parties and club evening events within military environments. “A real change of pace” in footwear as Will aka A Suitable Wardrobe would say! John


    December 31, 2013 at 1:34 pm

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