Friday, December 25, 2015

How the West Was Won

On December 4th 2003 in Edmonton, Gilles Caron, a truck driver from Quebec but living in Alberta, turned left on a red light. Pulled over by the police, he was given a ticket written in English only. Five days later, Mr. Caron contested the validity of the ticket because it was not bilingual. He also asked for a trial in French. At the same time, a Franco-Albertan named Pierre Boutet initiated the same appeal.

They were no doubt inspired by George Forest, a Francophone Métis from Manitoba who fought right up to the Supreme Court the validity of an English-only parking ticket by appealing to the commitment made towards the Métis upon the creation of the province of Manitoba in 1870. Forest convinced the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional the 1890 law abolishing bilingualism in Manitoba. That 1979 ruling caused the restoration of French as an official language of Manitoba. 

Strong tensions

We shouldn’t underestimate what the impact of a victory for Caron and Boutet could have been in Alberta. The anti-French sentiment has deep roots in the West. Marie-France Kenny, the current president of the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadiennes du Canada, remembers that “in the 1950’s, the KKK would burn crosses in front of our schools. The nuns would have to teach us French in secret.”

We should also remember that in 1982, when Manitoba was forced by the Supreme Court to translate into French all of its law since 1890, the provincial government tried to come to an agreement with the Société franco-manitobaine (SFM) whereas it would forego that gigantic expense in exchange for improved services in French for certain ministries. The Anglophone population was nonetheless outraged and the offices of the SFM were set on fire.

The then president of the SFM, Léo Robert, and his wife Diane received death threats, followed by an anonymous letter warning them that their children had been followed from school in order to find their address, and that something bad could happen to the kids if the SFM persisted in its demands. To ensure their security, Léo and Diane were forced to leave their home and relocate their children outside Winnipeg. 

The inherent double-standard

In the end, the defenders of French in Alberta were spared such ugliness since the Supreme Court ruled that Alberta had no constitutional obligation to translate its laws into French. It justified its ruling by saying that it cannot “create new rights” in the plaintiffs’ favor. The Court got creative by adding that “linguistic rights have always been conferred in an express manner”. On that, the Court is partly right, because while that assertion is true for francophones, it was never true for anglophones. In their case, “the silence of the law” has always been interpreted as conferring full linguistic rights. There are therefore two irreconcilable interpretations of rights built along Canada’s historic fault line, the goal of which is unquestionably the domination of one group and the inevitable subordination of the other. The Supreme Court has always had the duty to come running whenever Canada’s fundamental double-standard is threatened.

The Supreme Court’s ruling sticks our noses into the harsh reality that the Constitution of Canada is nothing but an unequal contract built on a nineteenth century assumption of Anglo-Saxon superiority. The rights of Anglos were always held to be sacred but the rights of francophones were always negotiable. Section 133.2 of the 1867 Constitution (BNAA), which is still the law today, states that "The Acts of the Parliament of Canada and of the Legislature of Quebec shall be printed and published in both English and French". Quebec is therefore constitutionally obliged to write all of its laws in French and English but no such requirements were forced on to any other province until the 1980s. And these requirements, as the Supreme Court has made clear, do not apply to most of English Canada.

The country that could have been

Manitoba exemplifies the Canada that could have been, but was deliberately prevented from coming into being. Following the Red River Rebellion of 1869-1870, the Parliament of Canada enacted the Manitoba Act. The Act embodied many of the demands that had been made by Louis Riel and the Métis at the time of the rebellion. These demands had been written in a succession of Petition of Rights drafted by the Métis and their Provisional Government at the time of the rebellion.

Essentially, the Manitoba Act created a Métis province. This had been forced on the Government of Canada by the position of strength of the Métis and by support in Quebec for such a move. John A. Macdonald, felt that the creation of a province, out of a part of the North-West Territory, was premature. The territory was not sufficiently populated and the “true character” of the West had not yet been established according to him. Macdonald probably had in mind a territory populated by white immigrant farmers from Ontario and the British Isles. The idea of entrusting the government of a province to Natives was evidently foreign to nineteenth century Anglo concepts of “proper government”. The provincial status was the first, and main, concession made to the Métis. The province was given the name of Manitoba at the request of the Métis. 

Given the concession of provincial status to the Métis, the federal government insisted on two points that were incorporated into the Manitoba Act: 

  1. The new province was limited to a very small size, to an area immediately south of Lake Winnipeg and extending to the American border – hence the term of “postage stamp province” used to describe the size of Manitoba as created in 1870. It appears that by keeping the province small, the federal government was limiting the “potential damage” in having the Métis put in charge of a province. 
  2. All the “ungranted or waste lands in the Province” – essentially the Crown Lands, the natural resources and the revenue to be derived thereof – were vested in the government of Canada, rather than with the provincial government as was done elsewhere in Canada. Such lands were to be used “for the purposes of the Dominion”. Local control over land was removed from Manitoba as it was expected that the (Métis) government of Manitoba might interfere with the process of land distribution and settlement of white farmers in the province. This lack of control over its lands is what partly explains that the Métis lost control over their province by 1873-1875 as the small Métis population was rapidly submerged by the influx into the province of new settlers, primarily from Ontario. This model of withdrawing control of Crown Lands was later followed when Saskatchewan and Alberta were created in 1905. It created an anomalous situation by which an entire region (the Prairies) was treated differently than the other provinces. This lasted until 1930.
In the House of Commons, much debate took place on the model that should be followed in creating the political and social institutions of Manitoba. Many promoted the Ontario model that consisted of a simple form of government – akin to a municipal government –, a single public school system not organized around religious denominations, as well as a single language – English – in the courts and the legislature of the province. This model, popular in English-speaking Canada, was believed to foster unity. 

Others, mostly from Quebec, promoted the Quebec model. This model fostered diversity. It provided for a dual denominational school system – one that recognized both Catholic and protestant schools – as well as two languages in the courts and the legislature of the province: French and English. In this latter model, the parliamentary institutions were elaborate and followed, as in the case of Quebec, the model of the British Parliament with an upper and a lower house. It is clear that the institutions of Manitoba were shaped in the Quebec model. 

Thus, guarantees were extended to the French and the English languages. At the outset of Confederation, Canada chose the model of diversity, mostly because it matched the situation of the Métis who were French and English, Catholics and Protestants, but also because it was heavily favoured in Quebec. Consequently, in the early days of Confederation, a bilingual and bicultural country was emerging, especially if one keeps in mind that the Manitoba institutions were extended by federal legislation to the rest of the North-West in 1875. However, between 1890 and 1905, virtually all the bilingual and bicultural elements created in the West between 1870 and 1877, were abolished once anglophones had gained majority status and could impose their will over others.

Ein volk, ein reich

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed the rise of nativist, racist and otherwise unenlightened movements in English Canada. Throughout Canada, French-Catholic minorities were systematically attacked one after the other in an attempt to make them conform to the White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant mold. Everywhere, outside of Quebec, minorities, racial, ethnic or linguistic, were hounded. French-Catholic minorities stood as a symbol: their presence said that difference was acceptable and good, that diversity was welcomed. Their eradication would give to all the same message: conformity was what was desired. 

In New Brunswick, in Manitoba, in the North West and in Ontario francophone rights were curtailed. Even where more justice should have been expected, such as in the federal government and parliament, French rights were openly disregarded. Only after long and protracted battles was French accepted on the stamps of Canada or on its currency, things that should have been symbols of the bicultural and bilingual nature of the country; meanwhile, few French Canadians rose in the civil service or in the army, and discrimination was rampant. Some of the laws that were passed in English Canada during this time included:

1871 - New Brunswick: The Common School Act imposes double taxation measures against French Catholic schools. 
1877 - Prince-Edward-Island: The Public School Act puts an end to the teaching of French in schools. 
1890 - Ontario: The Liberal government of Oliver Mowat adopted a law stating that English must be the language of education except when children cannot understand it. 
1890 - Manitoba: Official Language Act banning French, formerly an official language in the province. Premier Greenway diminishes the rights to French school, abolishes its use in the Parliament and in the Courts of the province.  
1891 - Ontario: The minister of education, George W. Ross, bans all French school books in Ontario. 
1905 - Alberta: The School Act of that year imposed English as the only language of instruction, while allowing some use of French in primary classes. 
1909 - Saskatchewan: The School Act makes English the only language of instruction but allowed limited use of French in primary classes. In 1929, a different Saskatchewan law abolished French in public education. 
1916 - Manitoba: The Thornton Act, by abolishing bilingual schools, completely ends the teaching of French in the province. 
1912 - Ontario: Circular of Instructions Regulation No. 17 and No. 18 Forbids the teaching of French above the first two grades of elementary school.
The Supreme Court never said a word about the rights of francophones during this time. If the linguistic rights of francophones weren’t conferred in an express manner, they did not exist according to the Court. But when Quebec enacted the Charter of the French language which limited the use of English in Quebec, the Supreme Court immediately sprang into action in order to cut it into pieces. The linguistic rights of anglophones in Quebec did not need to be explicitly defined, they were always inherent.

Before Canada’s annexation of the West in 1870, official bilingualism had been the rule when the lands were under Hudson’s Bay Company control; at the time, roughly half of the inhabitants were French-speaking. We shouldn’t forget that it was Lower-Canada (Quebec)’s money that allowed Upper-Canada (Ontario) to get out of a crippling bankruptcy in 1840. And it was in large part Lower-Canada’s money that led to the acquisition of the rights to Rupert's Land in 1870. Yet despite this, the federal government made sure that the West would be English only.

The federal government set out to recruit immigrants by the hundreds of thousands to settle the West. For that purpose, Canada eventually had hundreds of immigration officers, although nearly all of them were to be found in Great Britain, Ireland and in the United States. So while thousands of Québécois (close to one million from 1830 to 1930) emigrated to the United States, Canada recruited large numbers of British, Irish and American immigrants to fill the West. It was plain to see that the federal government did not care about the fate of the Quebecois and made no effort to repatriate them. Immigration from Europe was subsidized (each immigrant received free land and, by the 1920’s, a train ticket for the West; Quebecers who wished to go west had to buy their own tickets).

The name of the game is still empire

Canada only cleaned up its act in the 1960s when faced with a growing independence movement in Quebec. It is as it has always been. When forced to, Canada makes concessions, but when it has the upper hand, it imposes homogeneity, since this promotes unity. Today, with French declining across Canada, the federal government just needs to push for the wall-to-wall application of the “personality principle” to language and reject Quebec's attempts at establishing the “territorial principle” within Quebec, as it exists in Belgium and Switzerland. Canada is only promoting this type of “bilingualism” because it is now in its favor. The goal posts may have changed, but the game is the same. It is the domination of one nation over another i.e. empire.


  1. Nice synthesis, well written, very instructive, kind of history things not teach in school and people should be aware about for better understanding how canadian political and constitution system evolve since its creation.

  2. Pierre Trudeau had the right strategy in retrospect. Don't give up in to decentralization and power demands of all the provinces, just to appease one province, Quebec.

    1. What exactly is the great virtue of Canada's imperial federalism? Why do you think your life is better because power is centralized in Ottawa? Quebec has always fought for a classical form of federalism because it guarantees a measure of national autonomy. English Canadians, on the other hand, want a form of federalism that is ever more centralized, because they know this will strengthen Canadian power and identity. They are also viscerally opposed to any recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, nation or anything else, because they know that such an identity would rival and undermine the Canadian identity in Quebec. On the other hand, a system with a strong central government and the provinces reduced to mere administrative units, a system with no national distinctions, a system under the highly symmetrical but totally unrealistic official languages act, would in the long run lead to the demise of Quebec’s national identity along with the French language.

      In other words, you can take the English Canadian out of the British Empire but you will never get the imperialism out of the English Canadian...

      For your education...