A minor rebellion, to be sure—but a rebellion, nonetheless
DAVID THOMAS,GRAHAM FRASER,IAN URQUHARTSeptember191977
A minor rebellion, to be sure—but a rebellion, nonetheless
Unadorned flagpoles poked into the ominous sky above most of the dozen Inuit settlements of Quebec’s northland, no longer bearing the fleur-de-lis ensign of a distant government. At the administrative centre of Fort Chimo, the water delivery truck still avoided the homes and offices of provincial employees; they were fetching their own water in a makeshift plywood tank strapped onto a dump truck. But these were the only outward signs of conflict two weeks after the Inuit grabbed the country’s attention by lowering the Quebec flags and asking government employees and provincial police to leave until language differences are settled. Less obvious was the fact that provincial schools remained shut, community leaders of the 4,000 Quebec Inuit were refusing to permit distribution of provincial welfare cheques and a detachment of riot police, airlifted from the south at the outset of the confrontation, still languished inside the Fort Chimo police post. But a bitter realization was settling in among the Inuit that the southern reporters, politicians and a Toronto businessman who had jumped behind their cause had done so for reasons that had little to do with native well-being or language concerns.
English is well established as the Inuit’s
second language and Quebec’s Bill 101, the Charte de la langue française, was immediately seen as a threat by Inuit who fear that they will be forced to adopt another European language while their own Inuktituk is being crushed under the intense pressures of northern development. They are also worried about being cut off from Englishspeaking Inuit elsewhere in the Canadian North. What they want guaranteed above all is the power to determine their own rate of introducing French into their dealings with the Quebec government. But the score of reporters who squeezed into the wartime U.S. Air Force storehouse converted into Fort Chimo’s only hotel were filing stories southward depicting the Inuit as a vanguard of a federalist attack on Quebec’s language law and Premier René Lévesque’s separatist government.
It was the offer by Toronto developer Camillo Milani to bankroll a court fight that caused Inuit leader Charlie Watt to draw back from the vortex of the QuebecEnglish Canada linguistic and constitutional conflict. The 66-year-old Milani was born in Canada but educated in Italy and he’s furious that Quebec language legislation, restricting English schooling to children whose parents were educated in English in Quebec, would bar his children
from English public schools in that province. When he heard of the Inuit resistance, he telephoned Watt in Fort Chimo and flew to Montreal to meet him. Milani says the meeting was warm, but Watt refused his money. On his return to Fort Chimo, fatigued and disillusioned, Watt remarked that the southern entrepreneur had shown only passing concern for the Inuit. “He seemed to have some other cause—saving Canada. That’s not our fight at the moment.”
Undaunted, Milani was also offering financial backing to the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal which, along with the Provincial Association of Catholic Teachers, have been accused by Lévesque of engaging in “administrative civil disobedience” in reaction to Bill 101. As in every back-to-school week in Quebec since former Liberal premier Robert Bourassa introduced his then-controversial language legislation, Bill 22, in 1974, the Island of Montreal was caught up early this month in the continuing controversy over restricted access to English schools. However, with Bill 101 ’s criteria for access to English schools—much stricter than the proficiency tests prescribed by Bill 22—the number of students illegally enrolled in English classrooms jumped suddenly from several hundred to an estimated 2,100.
The Protestant school board and the Catholic teachers earned Lévesque’s ire by openly admitting the children of parents who were prepared to defy the law. Chairman Joan Dougherty admits the board is walking a fine legal line in explaining the law to parents but refusing to support it. In an extraordinary statement to the press, she said that if the school board had its grants cut off in retaliation it would turn to industry to make up the difference—which would in effect transform the English school system into a private system.
The Parti Québécois education minister, Jacques-Yvan Morin, was reacting calmly, saying no children would be evicted from school. “French children were ousted from French schools by police in Ontario in 1917, but that won’t happen in Quebec. Only savages would do something like that,” he said. There were no declared plans to cut grants to rebellious school boards. Nevertheless, grants would not be given to cover pupils illegally attending English schools, and they would not be officially recognized or granted diplomas.
Privately, some Parti Québécois members are delighted by the show of defiance of the school boards and the claim that they can survive on donations from industry. It confirms the idea that English Quebeckers are determined to assimilate immigrants to the English community, and reaffirms the stereotype of the English community having easy access to the large industries and corporations. PQ supporters feel that such tactics will convert the widespread—but passive—endorsement of Bill 101 in the francophone community to active support. What would make their wildest dreams come true would be a decision by the federal government to overrule, or the Supreme Court to disallow, the bill. In fact, the protestant school board turned to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau asking him to refer the language bill to the Supreme Court, another action that, if taken, would have delighted the PQ. But Trudeau rejected the plea, though he did not rule out the possibility that Ottawa might assist the board, and counseled the school board against using civil disobedience to frustrate the intent of Bill 101. “I’ve always been of the opinion that, if the laws are bad, we should change the government,” he said, advising the minorities in Quebec to vote Liberal.
However, Trudeau did seize the opportunity to make another pitch to the provincial premiers for entrenchment of minority language rights in the Constitution, one of his pet projects. This time there was a new twist to his proposal: Quebec would be given special status, something Trudeau has always opposed in principle in the past. While parents would be granted freedom of choice by the proposed constitutional
amendment to send their children to English or French schools in the other nine provinces, Quebec would be allowed to discriminate according to the language of education of the parent. Thus, as in Bill 101, only children whose parents were taught in English could attend English schools. The only difference from Bill 101 is that children whose parents move to Quebec from other provinces would be allowed to attend English schools. Thus the constitutional amendment would achieve the same result as the reciprocal agreements offered by Lévesque to the other provinces last month and rejected.
Trudeau’s strategy was clear: he was attempting to isolate Lévesque by calling his bluff. Within hours, Lévesque, smoked out, rejected Trudeau’s offer, raising speculation again that Trudeau might call an election to reinforce his drive for constitutional protection of minority rights.
Meanwhile, far to the north, the Inuit communities that had helped galvanize the new opposition to Bill 101 were doing their best to keep things cool. Fort Chimo’s community council, hoping to head off any incident that would justify action by the shipped-in riot police, halted the twice-
weekly sale of beer at the co-op outlet. As a back-up, the post office was impounding all incoming bottle-sized packages that gurgled suspiciously. DAVID THOMAS
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