For better or for worse, my pedagogic calling coincided with the provincial government of the now defunct Union Nationale adopting Bill 63 – a controversial piece of legislation (at least from a nationalist perspective) which guaranteed all citizens of this province the right to send their children to the school of their choice. The year was 1969 and the contentious law was the direct result of disturbances which took place in the streets of St. Leonard a year earlier when the local Catholic school board attempted to deny parents of Italian background the right to send their children to English educational institutions. The statute remained in effect until it was replaced in 1974 with Bill 22 by the Liberals of Robert Bourassa.
My recollection of Bill 63 (and the impact it had upon my initial years in high school instruction) is even today quite vivid. In fact, during that five year period, in many a classroom in the Montreal area could be found a small cluster of francophone youngsters (essentially all of French Canadian extraction) who, for reasons of behaviour (or the lack of it), had been cast out of French-language high schools. Subsequently, their parents invoked Bill 63 in order to get the unruly child off the streets and placed in an English language educational facility, more often than not within the old Catholic system.
As one might effortlessly imagine, these demanding teenagers were not easy to teach. They refused to be separated, sitting together in a corner of the classroom chortling away “en québécois,” totally indifferent to what was going on around them. “On veut rien savoir,” several told me quite directly.
Of course, those were heady days for Quebec nationalists. What with the 1967 “Vive le Quebec Libre” cry of General Charles DeGaulle on the balcony of the Montreal City Hall, the creation of the Parti Québécois in 1968, and the “McGill français” demonstration the following spring, all events seemed to point in the direction of upheaval and change from which (in their eyes) Quebec would blossom forth and join the ranks of blissful nation-states already present on the planet earth. In all, a kind of “magic” to quote Lucien Bouchard a generation later.
In due time I left the English – language schools of the now bygone Catholic system and commenced, in 1973, a thirty – three year teaching saga with the old PSBGM, today the EMSB. At the time, I quickly noted that there were very few “Bill 63 students” in the Protestant school system as it was much simpler for francophone parents to send their errant children to English Catholic schools, which were usually administered by the same “commission scolaire” as the French ones. I also noticed that very few of the students I was now teaching could speak French and that they too, in their own way, “voulaient rien savoir.”
As the years passed, however, I observed a significant shift such that by the end of my career in 2006 most students to whom I taught various subjects spoke French fluently. Many pupils spoke three and sometimes even four languages and I constantly encouraged them to learn more, especially Spanish.
I don’t know what is happening linguistically in the schools of the “Commission Scolaire de Montréal,” although I suspect not much. I frequently hear in the streets of this city francophone dropouts speaking a French that I don’t believe would be understood off the Island of Montreal, let alone in the rest of the francophone world. I further imagine that their English is virtually not existant. I won’t then even mention Spanish !
It’s hard, therefore, to comprehend in what fanciful and self-serving world P.Q. leader Pauline Marois (whose children by her own admission are fluently bilingual) and former Premier Bernard Landry are living in their preposterous insistance that Quebec should be neither bilingual nor multicultural. Surely it is time for our political leaders to be told a simple truth: that the learning of languages and the appreciation of cultures should be encouraged and supported by all those in a position of authority over our youth. It’s happening in many corners of the world and there is no reason for it not to happen here.
Furthermore, I don’t believe that many in the anglophone and allophone communities are calling for a return to the long lost days of Bill 63 but many consider that it would be rather helpful if some of our politicians would just lighten up a little bit.