Spartacist Canada No. 189
Ontario's 1912 Ban on French Education
Equal Language Rights for All!
Barely a month goes by without one or another government official issuing a hypocritical apology for past transgressions by the Canadian capitalist rulers. In one of the more recent, Ontario’s Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne stood before the Legislature in February to apologize for the banning of teaching in French in provincial schools more than a century ago.
Regulation 17, enacted in 1912, effectively outlawed French-language education in all Ontario schools beyond the first two grades. At the time, francophones made up about 10 percent of Ontario’s population, and a much higher proportion in the north and parts of the east and southwest. This blatantly discriminatory legislation produced a defiant backlash: francophone teachers ignored the ban and led students out of classrooms, while mothers blocked entrances to schools and confronted police who tried to impose the regulation. In Quebec, outrage over Regulation 17 contributed to the revolts against conscription during World War I, which were brutally repressed by the police and military.
The Ontario government’s edict exemplified the Anglo chauvinism of the Canadian ruling class, which suppressed the national rights of overwhelmingly francophone Quebec and the linguistic rights of French speakers elsewhere. In 1837-38, Quebec’s bourgeois-democratic Patriote rebellion was drowned in blood by British troops. Following Confederation in 1867, the battles of the largely francophone Métis people for language and property rights in Manitoba and later Saskatchewan led to the Northwest Rebellion of 1885. The subsequent hanging of Métis leader Louis Riel by the Tory government of John A. Macdonald led to mass protests in the streets of Montreal. To this day, francophones in Ontario—who number over 600,000—and elsewhere in nominally bilingual Canada keep having to fight for French-language education, hospital services and other basic rights.
This is the backdrop to the Ontario government’s apology, which naturally included no promise of compensation. The purpose of such apologies for crimes of a supposedly distant past—whether to francophones, Native people, Japanese and Chinese Canadians or Sikhs—is to maintain the deceitful fiction that modern capitalist Canada is a beacon of fairness, freedom and equality for all. The ruling class uses its cant about a progressive, multicultural and bilingual Canada to keep the national and language questions at bay in a country where more than 20 percent of the population primarily speaks French and where immigrant languages now also abound. The historic treatment of francophones has become something of a template for dealing with minorities arriving from all over the world: ugly chauvinism is papered over with soothing words, alongside the co-opting of “cultural” elites including religious leaders and corrupt politicians of all hues.
The Battle for French Schools in Ontario
The provincial Conservative government of James Whitney passed Regulation 17 in July 1912 following an official inquiry into the state of Ontario’s bilingual schools. Protests and school walkouts began that same year. The Globe (25 November 1912) reported that “about 1,000 young FrenchCanadians” rallied against Regulation 17 the previous day in Ottawa, which was then about 25 percent francophone. The reporter summarized: “It was asserted that the new regulations, particularly No. 17, were contrary to every right, natural and constitutional, possessed by French-Canadians under the British North America Act, and that their purpose was to Anglicize the children who attended the bilingual schools.”
During the 1914 provincial election campaign, a rally for a Conservative candidate ended abruptly when he was hit by a rotten egg thrown by a protester against Regulation 17. Two years later, mothers formed a chain around Ottawa’s École Guigues to stop police from evicting two teachers who refused to comply with the regulation. Pulling out their long hairpins for self-protection, they managed to keep the cops out. In 1917, Catholic French Canadian parishioners near Windsor revolted when the police tried to enforce the installation of a priest deemed an opponent of bilingual education. Nine were arrested and ten injured, including two women in their 70s. The next year, protesters in Montreal and Quebec City confronted police and the military in anti-conscription demonstrations. Four protesters were killed in Quebec City. These angry rallies showed that Quebec’s francophone population had no desire to fight and die in a war for British imperialism and its Canadian lapdogs.
To complement police repression, government officials responded to the protests against Regulation 17 with patronizing contempt. Declaring that “French-speaking citizens…are noted for their obedience to duly constituted authority,” Premier Whitney added: “those who are exciting prejudices and misrepresenting the situation are counselling the minority to defy the whole authority of the Province of Ontario” (Globe, 9 October 1912).
Part of the basis for this condescending claptrap was the role of the Catholic church, to which nearly the entire French Canadian population belonged. The priests and bishops had long enforced acceptance of francophones’ inferior status under British and English Canadian rule, imposing obedience to authority through fear of excommunication and damnation. But defense of the French language was one of the key pillars that justified the church’s political existence, and French-speaking priests could not defend Regulation 17 without discrediting themselves. So a civil war of sorts erupted in the Ontario Catholic church between its French-speaking leadership and the English-speaking Irish wing. Faced with the raw bigotry of the Protestant Orange Order, which held great sway in the province, the Irish priests largely supported Regulation 17, fearing that all Catholic schools—English as well as French—might be targeted for suppression amid the debate over bilingual education. These debates were argued all the way to the Vatican, where Pope Benedict XV sagely declined to take a side.
Increasingly unenforceable and a nagging source of national and linguistic tensions, Regulation 17 stopped being formally applied in 1927. However it was not rescinded until 1944, and French schools were not officially recognized in Ontario until 1968 while access to them only became a legal right in the 1980s. The battle for francophone rights in Ontario flared up again in the 1990s when the Conservative government of Mike Harris tried to shut down the only French-language teaching hospital in Ontario, Ottawa’s Hôpital Montfort. This led to huge protests, which eventually saved it from closure.
Today, Ontario maintains two school systems, a public and a separate, publicly-funded Catholic system. Many French-language schools are tied to the latter and are often older and ill-maintained. As Marxists who advocate the complete separation of church and state, we call for a single, secular public school system with bilingual and where necessary multilingual education. Francophones and other minorities, wherever numbers warrant, should have the same level of access to quality education in the language of their choice as the English-speaking majority.
In Quebec, the hold of the Catholic church was finally broken through the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, which saw the emergence of a distinct French-speaking capitalist class. The emergent Québécois bourgeoisie soon began its own drive to assimilate non-francophone minorities, especially immigrants, through restrictive language legislation. Just as we oppose anti-French discrimination in English Canada, we also oppose the restrictive provisions of Quebec’s French-language charter, Law 101, notably in the field of education. At the same time, we recognize that the primary root cause of the linguistic and ethnic divisions within Quebec is the Canadian rulers’ longstanding anti-Quebec chauvinism and hostility toward French language rights.
At around the same time as the battles for French schools in English-dominated Canada, V.I. Lenin, the future leader of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, was tackling the interlinked questions of national and language rights in the multinational tsarist empire, which was dominated by Great Russian chauvinism. In concluding a polemic against Russian liberals who advocated that Russian be made the “official” language, he stated:
“That is why Russian Marxists say that there must be no compulsory official language, that the population must be provided with schools where teaching will be carried on in all the local languages, that a fundamental law must be introduced in the constitution declaring invalid all privileges of any one nation and all violations of the rights of national minorities.”
—“Is a Compulsory Official Language Needed?” (January 1914)
For Lenin, advocacy of the democratic right of all nations to self-determination, i.e., the right to separate, together with opposition to privileges for any nationality or language, was crucial to combating divisions among the workers and uniting them in the fight for socialist revolution.
Canadian Nationalism Rooted in Anti-French Chauvinism
After the Conquest of New France in 1760-63, the British crown was dead set on wiping out any remnants of the French colonies in North America. Between 1755 and 1763, the British deported about 10,000 Acadians from Nova Scotia, with thousands dying on the journey. In Quebec, the British sought to eradicate French education while trying to swamp the French population through immigration from Britain, though the high francophone birthrate proved to be an insuperable obstacle.
A small number of francophone missionaries and coureurs des bois fur traders had arrived in Ontario as early as the 17th century. Later, Quebec’s high birthrate and the scarcity of arable land pushed the French-speaking population further afield in the 1800s and early 1900s. Attempts to colonize new areas within Quebec had limited success, as most of the province essentially sits on hard rock. Many workers seeking jobs ended up in the U.S., northern Ontario and further west. French Canadian nationalists like Henri Bourassa argued that sparsely populated Western Canada should be open to both English and French colonists, but the Anglo rulers begged to differ.
Canada had received quasi-independence from Britain in 1867 under the stewardship of arch-reactionary Tory prime minister Macdonald, a member of the Orange Order. Macdonald’s crushing of the Northwest Rebellion and hanging of Louis Riel ensured that this region would be controlled by the English. (Manitoba had been majority francophone, largely of Métis heritage, when it entered Confederation in 1870.)
The ideology that drove Canada’s ruling elite was epitomized by the phrase “One Language, One Flag, One Country,” associated with D’Alton McCarthy, a Tory MP and Orange Order leader from central Ontario. The importance that the capitalist rulers placed on stopping the spread of French language rights was captured in an early history of the Métis struggle written by Charles P. Mulvaney, a military officer who himself participated in the suppression of the Northwest Rebellion. Mulvaney criticized Macdonald for his intransigence towards the Métis’ desire for the right to own their own farms, but when it came to the demand for language rights, he declared:
“The other demands were purely political, and were introduced by Riel himself in order to found an exclusively French Province in the North-West. To grant this would have been to repeat the lamentable error by which England at the Conquest perpetuated the French language, law, and religion, and established an island of mediaevalism and of alien race in the midst of the spread of English Canadian civilization.”
—The History of the North-West Rebellion of 1885 (1885)
Elsewhere in the country, “English only” bigotry targeted Chinese and other immigrants, especially in B.C. And of course Native people suffered for generations under the residential school system, which aimed at destroying their identity and making them “Canadian,” including by wiping out their languages.
For Working-Class Unity Against Capitalism!
While the francophone minority suffered the blows of chauvinist policies, they were not simply victims. In the course of the 20th century, many Franco-Ontarians became a key component of the labour movement, notably in the mines of northern Ontario. The Communist Party-led Mine Mill union in the Sudbury area, one of the world’s main nickel-mining centres, had thousands of French Canadian members. In her book, Voices from French Ontario (1982), Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos described how “by the 1950s Mine-Mill local 598, with its 15,000 members, was bigger than most northern Ontario towns and more influential than any other institution in Sudbury—including the Roman Catholic church.” In the words of a francophone Mine-Mill unionist quoted by Arnopoulos: “The church had a rival. The priests didn’t like it, and they decided to find a way to run it out of town.”
The Catholic hierarchy allied with the bosses and right-wing union leaders to drive out Mine Mill in one of the key battles in the anti-Communist purges that sapped the fighting strength of the Canadian labour movement from the late 1940s to the early ’60s. In response, many francophone workers broke with the church. While the northern Ontario mining industry has since been devastated by closures and mass layoffs, workers of francophone origin remain a strong component of the working class in many parts of the country.
In recent decades, overt “English only” bigotry has largely been sidelined, at least at official government levels. But the ethos of “Canadian unity,” with Anglo chauvinism as a necessary corollary, remains at the heart of capitalist Canada. Confronted with the powerful class and other social struggles that shook Quebec in the 1960s and ’70s, the federal government combined cosmetic reform with the fist of repression. Thus, Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who had introduced official bilingualism, sent the army to occupy Quebec and orchestrate the jailing of hundreds of left-wing and nationalist militants in October 1970. And through two referendums on Quebec independence in 1980 and 1995, Liberal-led federal governments resorted to threats, lies and dirty tricks in order to maintain a “united” Canada.
Since the events of a century ago, the national divide between Quebec and English Canada has deepened to the point where it has poisoned prospects for united class struggle against the capitalists. The Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste advocates Quebec independence, recognizing that this would create better conditions for the workers to see that “their” capitalists are class enemies, not allies, and thereby clear the way for struggle against the bosses in each nation. At the same time, we recognize that in the event of Quebec independence, the Canadian ruling class would seek to roll back democratic gains won by French speakers outside Quebec. Moreover, today’s Quebec bourgeois nationalists, who seek to become the exploiters of their “own” working class, are utterly indifferent to the plight of francophones outside Quebec—who are themselves, for misguided though understandable reasons, generally hostile to the idea of an independent Quebec.
In the event of Quebec independence, Marxists would continue to fight for the defense and extension of language rights for linguistic minorities, including immigrants and indigenous people, in both English Canada and Quebec. As an elementary democratic measure, predominantly francophone regions that are geographically adjacent to Quebec (e.g., largely Acadian parts of New Brunswick) should have the right to decide whether to join an independent Quebec or remain within Canada.
Our perspective is the forging of a Marxist vanguard party that would act, in Lenin’s words, as a “tribune of the people,” opposing all instances of chauvinism and oppression in order to unite the working class in the fight for socialist revolution. French-speaking workers in Ontario, New Brunswick and elsewhere will play an important role in this struggle. Down with anti-French chauvinism! Equal language rights for all!