Bill 101, hum… 101… The Sign Law

with 149 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

149 Responses

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  1. AngryFrenchGuy:

    Your independent Quebec will be one of poverty and a diminishing of the French language and culture.

    But it will never happen. Why?

    You’re a Canadian through and through. When it comes down to it, you’ll stick with your race law/hate law Bill 101 and keep the booty coming in from Canada

    Oh, and as for Haitians and French-speaking Africans, ask yourself this: Why is it that, given the chance, over 90% would choose to send their kids to English-speaking schools rather than French ones?

    You’ll keep them and your fellow citizens in poverty and a welfare state.

    That is what is disdainful.

    Tony Kondaks

    March 9, 2008 at 3:23 pm

  2. To everybody who wants Quebec to be independent!
    Why are you keeping your Canadian passports and don’t through them out?
    Why are you saying abroad that you are French Canadians but never Quebecois?
    Why you don’t protest against Canada on the streets?
    Why do I see so rarely the moderate graffities on the backside fences “Oui”, or “Vivre la Quebec libre!” ?
    Why are you using Canadian bills and talk to everybody proudly that Canadian currency is higher than American one?
    Why do you like to get Canadian pension and do not refuse to get it?
    Why are you distinct?
    Whiter than me? More French than me? More educated than me?
    Why most of your people on welfare forever?
    Why BS words are very common words in Quebec?
    Why are you still in Canada?
    Are you scared? Do you prefer to speak theoretically only?
    Political correctness?
    Spiritual weakness?
    Just weakness?
    Even Angryfrenchguy – the Quebec crusader has been declared as a traitor of Quebec!
    I am ethnic and allophone. I live in Canadian province of Quebec! I am a new Canadian!
    And I am going to spend all my live, all my money and all my willingness to keep Quebec as a part of Canada!
    All my friends and me do not care about your lousy separatism!
    We care about future Quebec economic!
    I gave the job to 5 French Canadian people!
    12 dollars per hour!
    Did you do the same?


    March 9, 2008 at 8:04 pm

  3. Wow Sergei.

    Living as an English-speaker in Montreal really has helped you become a happy, open-minded and well informed citizen.

    Thank God those nasty separatist did not fill you mind with lies and hate…


    March 9, 2008 at 9:56 pm

  4. I don’t get the point of these arguments. A true culture doesn’t need protection. You can’t force a language on people and be hostile toward them. Blaming other people will not save a culture. Enforcing bill 101 will not save french in Québec. Telling a person “ici c’est français” and being rude and overprotective to another person will not do much. If a person hates English or french, they should not move to Montreal but stay in an isolated part. The quebec media is biased, they’re instigators that create problems that don’t exist. If anything, they love to stir the pot. I wonder how legitimate a culture that has to constantly reaffirm itself is. Social engineering promotes a language, not a culture. I’m sick and tired of people blaming immigrants for what is clearly a demographic problem. They learn French, what more do you want? I’m tired of these stupid statistics and rapport that still sees others as threats. What kills me about Quebec is that it acts like a country when IT ISN’T. Quebec’s separation is symbolic, not realistic. Why argue about something that won’t happen? Quebec has everything it wants and more, including a law that imposes a language. What more does it want? How the hell will separating from Canada turn Quebec into a powerful nation? Even Canada is demographically changing. it’s not only a quebec “problem.” Enjoy your life and culture without being so paranoid.


    March 9, 2008 at 11:00 pm

  5. There are some pretty substantive and engrossing arguments on here. All I have to say is that I totally agree with the sign law as it stands today (French predominant). It is a French province in a bilingual (on paper) Country. What I don’t like is semantics, and the pub debacle reeks of them. There must be a way for Quebeckers to have their signs in French yet allow for a more fluid interpretation of the law that gives a certain amount of freedom to those who would do otherwise. I always considered Quebec to be the Canadian home of the Loophole. Has Quebec become so, so Boring, so devoid of passion that they uphold the letter of the law with as much zeal as they once flaunted it? Sounds like they have become Anglicized…lol


    March 10, 2008 at 8:42 pm

  6. “I don’t think you understand that the fact that many of us use English as a tool doesn’t mean that we adopt anglo-saxon culture.”

    i use french as a tool and it serves me well – it does not make me anything. it is my english from montreal that allows me to share the culture of quebec with you.

    agf – our culture is north american –
    no other place on earth like it. wouldn’t trade it for all the tea in china…
    at some point i would like to see some understanding on your part concerning this fact and the abandonment of past grievances. industry and commerce lifted quebec out of an agricultural society to the benefit of all. we’re regional players now but unless we get into the game and show the rest of the world otherwise – it’s just another day. regional players are a dime a dozen. in your world quebec is a special shiny dime – and to an extent i would agree, but only because all my best and worst memories (my life) come from here.

    despite the many languages spoken around the world – i feel that what matters most is what you personally hold dear in your heart and what you would be willing to fight for.

    most people understand the advantages of speaking french in quebec – at the same time it is not the least bit dangerous or incongruous to express dissatisfaction with laws that limit choice and opportunity. agf, your politics drive me nuts but they are what you choose and i support your freedom to choose 110%.

    choice. freedom to choose; that’s what humans need – it is fundamental for health. surely you cannot disagree with this idea?

    make a ton of money – hire people – pay taxes. this will improve life in quebec. or make lots of babies. hey! why not do both?

    and could you please give up on the socialism that you seem so comfortable mixing with nationalism – it’s a bad recipe. i believe you are a secular humanist and you want good things for everybody but machiavellian lapses serve nobody but self-serving politicians whose aspirations blind them in pursuit of popularity and power. at that moment – when power is achieved – popularity becomes moot.

    have you noticed that robert mugabe is still at it – redistributing the wealth of zimbabwe. inflation is running at 100,000%. what a hero. his agricultural reforms were such a huge success that zimbabwe, once called the “breadbasket of africa”, now imports food for a starving population. dictators suck.


    March 11, 2008 at 2:38 am

  7. I have travelled all over this continent, Johnny. Many times over.

    I speak all three of North America’s main languages, with a North American accent.

    North America is mine not because Radisson explored it. Because I did.

    Why does English and Spanish thrive as languages while French, Huixol, Ukrainian, Maya, Algonquin, Inuit, German, Creole, and Abénaki all slowly but surely decline?

    Because these communities never had a state to impose their languages as sole common language.

    It’s late, but not to late for French-speakers to get theirs.

    Will see how Libertarian Canadians are when waiters in restaurants start refussing to speak English and demand you address them in Spanish or Cantonese…

    Or in French…


    March 11, 2008 at 11:14 am

  8. AngryFrenchGuy wrote:

    “Why does English and Spanish thrive as languages while French, Huixol, Ukrainian, Maya, Algonquin, Inuit, German, Creole, and Abénaki all slowly but surely decline?”

    Number of French speakers in Quebec in 1763: 70,000

    Number of French speakers in Quebec in 2008: over 6 million.

    Tony Kondaks

    March 11, 2008 at 3:44 pm

  9. agf,

    travel is education – and the best thing about education is that it can never be taken away from you. choice can be taken away – and the results are more often than not – some terribly distorted consequence.

    back when the mass migration from quebec happened – nobody would have supported the bill if they knew what the result was going to be. in a word – it was a disaster. like a natural disaster it was not planned – it just happened.

    however tempting it is to be bitter about that – i will not fall into that trap. people made their choices. i tend to look on the bright side and now as a result (on my limited budget) i am welcome in the homes of friends all over the continent. halifax, toronto, edmonton, vancouver, calgary, boston, chicago, austin and even some friends who run a b&b in perpignan – the pyrenees.

    the world is shrinking too quickly and access to “foreign places” is easy. for now and the foreseeable future our society’s doors are open and the idea of a common language already exists – the name of the language is $$$$$.

    personally – i don’t care what language a waiter/waitress speaks as long as they’re friendly and the food is good. as for people (and this goes for customers and hospitality workers alike) who absolutely insist that a certain language is spoken and then are willing to get upset about it…. “houston, we have a problem!”

    if you’re not an astronaut somewhere between the earth and the moon – you could always grab hold of your seat – push the button and yell wildly – eject! eject! eject!

    now if only i had some friends in quebec city? ooooh! there’s going to be a party there this summer.


    March 11, 2008 at 9:16 pm

  10. hi tony,
    off topic – marty from way back nantel st. says hello. i was yakking with him about agf’s blog and i mentioned your name and deep abiding interest in the topics here.


    March 11, 2008 at 9:29 pm

  11. Marty C.? He would be about 56 now? From ULP?

    If that’s him, please give him my regards!

    If not him, must be another Marty I know…

    Tony Kondaks

    March 11, 2008 at 9:53 pm

  12. tony,

    the very same – consider it done.
    small world.

    georges, you have become a prince of serendip. merci.


    March 12, 2008 at 1:17 am

  13. […] Click here for information of the Charter of the French Language’s sign law. […]

  14. “Of course, when Canadian rule is over, Franco-Quebecers will have the most power, but luckily for the minority nations living inside Quebec, this power, having been subjected to a foreign domination for centuries itself, is consequently in a better position to comprehend their needs and sincerely wish to protect all their rights. More so than Canadians or Americans probably ever will.”

    That is complete bollocks.
    Compare the Irish in UK.
    Before the Second World War the Irish were the bottom of the social heap in Britain. There was considerable discrimination against them – last to be hired, first to be fired, &c. &c.
    And Ireland had a long history of oppression from Britain – much more severe and much longer than any Quebecker.
    After the Second World War there was an influx of immigrants to UK from the Carribean.
    They then became the bottom of the social heap.
    Did the Irish say “We know what it’s like to be oppressed”?
    Hell, no.
    The Irish were moved up one rung, and were more than happy to have some other group to feel superior to.
    With very little effort, I could find many similar examples of the previously oppressed being more than happy to be the oppressors when given the opportunity.

    Redmond McDonagh

    March 19, 2008 at 8:20 pm

  15. English speaking people think they are master of the universe. Arrogant and imperialist. Nothing has changed with or without bill 101. If it was just a little problem in Québec, no, it’s worldwide and it gave us this criminal called George W. Bush and Tony Blair. It gave also Irak, this tragedy. Small problem indeed in Québec but it’s symptomatic of what is the master plan; eliminate bit by bit any trace of french presence in America. Lord Durham rides again. Racist anglos.

    Marc Authier

    April 11, 2008 at 6:08 am

  16. Marc, u crack me up ! I love reading your comments! Thanks, better than watching “Tetes a claques”
    Did you watch any of your telecast on “accomodations raissonable” ? There wasn’t even a hint of racism there by your fellow PROVINCIAL citizens now was there ? I’d love to see you refute that.
    13 Sept 1759…….you were given a chance. ;)
    PS. I switched my keyboard to 1/3 font size so that it conforms and the OLF won’t feel that you are threatened.
    In the words of Rodney King, ” can’t we all just get along?” This place would be pretty boring without French culture, cuisine, art etc. Give it a chance man.

    Guy Gadbois

    April 11, 2008 at 1:07 pm

  17. Dear angryfrenchguy: Question
    Why do groups like the Mouvement montreal francais get all hot over signs like “Second Cup” when there are so local bars and other small establishments with English names? Take the Gay Village: 20 out of 32 bars have English names: Sky, Unity, Campus, Stereo (a l’anglaise), Stud, Parking, Tools, Drugstore, ad nauseum. The answer is obvious: if you’re anglo, it’s against the law; if you’re franco, the law does not apply.

    PS Hey Kondaks: Intelligent argument — more than I can say for afg. Keep it up!

    fed-up montrealer

    April 20, 2008 at 10:06 am

  18. I don’t know. Ask them.

    And are you saying there are no gay Anglos?


    April 20, 2008 at 10:20 am

  19. Are you inferring that if the ratio of English signs to French signs in the Village is 20 to 10, then there are twice as many gay anglos as gay francos? Extrapolating from that, that means there are twice as many anglos in Montreal as francos. Since I don’t think you meant to deduce that, what’s you point?

    fed-up montrealer

    April 20, 2008 at 11:25 am

  20. […] The idea that commercial signs are a form of personal expression and therefore a protected form of speech is controversial, but it has nevertheless been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada during the various challenges to Québec’s sign law. […]

  21. […] The idea that commercial signs are a form of personal expression and therefore a protected form of speech is controversial, but it has nevertheless been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada during the various challenges to Québec’s sign law. […]

  22. Hello. I enjoyed reading your website.
    Have a wonderful day and keep up the good work.


    July 7, 2008 at 6:12 am

  23. […] coined the term Language Police to designate the governement bureaucrats charged with enforcing the French Language Charter. Probably the only thing that could do worse damage to your international public image than a […]

  24. hrmmm… So what is the Quebec loi 101 about…?


    September 2, 2008 at 10:43 am

  25. […] became a sovereigntist myself because of Québec’s language legislation.  I understood it but I didn’t like it.  I struggled to find a way to protect and empower French in North […]

  26. “the very idea of regulating the use of other languages might seem a little bit closed-minded. ”

    Heaven forbid, people in pre-1960 spoke that disease known as English in Montreal. Only a redneck can think this way. So sad.

    A bigot is a bigot. And everyone know one when they meet one. Their friends, their neighbors, colleagues, …

    “It was the unapologetic claim of Montreal by the Québécois as their city and metropolis.” It’s also called ethnic cleansing… Quebecers don’t learn about fundamental human rights in school I suspect.

    Personally I am championing that all other provinces adopt the text of Bill 101, changing the words “French Language” for “English Language”.. I mean if legalized racism is good for Quebec, how could it not be good for the rest of Canada to protect the English language by codifying into law the discrimination of the French Language?

    How could any separatist not agree with this?

    The English language is under no threat in the ROC just as the French language is under no threat in Quebec (except for the fact a certain blogger has chosen to write in English…).

    French has been spoken here in Quebec for 400 years, and it will continue, that is if Franco-Canadians start to take their culture seriously rather that relying on laws to protect it. Why is it the best place to find French culture is in a museum?

    Why is there no French equivalent to George Lucas, The Beatles, JK Rowling? Because Francophones would have to learn how to play a guitar, or write a screenplay. That would be work.

    It is so much easier to petition politicians to create language laws. Oh and blame the English when their culture is all gone, safely locked up in a museum somewhere. So sad.


    September 16, 2008 at 9:21 pm

  27. “Why is there no French equivalent to George Lucas, The Beatles, JK Rowling? Because Francophones would have to learn how to play a guitar, or write a screenplay.”
    SO SO SO silly!
    Why is there no Spanish equivalent to George Lucas, The Beatles, JK Rowling? or German or Greek or Japanese or Hugarian etc.
    You’re so nothing!


    September 19, 2008 at 8:04 pm

  28. […] citizens of the of Nunavut adopted a Language Law inspired by Québec’s French Language Charter in order to protect the rights of the citizens of the booming territory to live and work in their […]

  29. Sorry but this is rediculous.
    i went to a store the other day and my friend asked the salesclerk something in english and she responded “I dont understand English.” she said it so rudely. i am still shocked at how she responded. How disrespectful. i am an english student and i work MY ASS OFF to learn french. but the quality of english in a french school is soo low. But if i have to make an effort to learn French .. the french speakers should make an effort to learn english.
    and may i add. it is AN ADVANTAGE to learn english.
    its like a universal language.
    and about the signs… english signs have to be half the signs of the french signs. what does that mean.. that we are half a human being? we are half a person?


    October 20, 2008 at 1:04 pm

  30. and by the way.. there is a language police.


    October 20, 2008 at 1:05 pm

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