What does Quebec in the 1960s have to teach us today? The “B & B Commission”

By Colin McGregor

In the 1960s, just as is the case today, Francophone Quebecers were afraid of losing their language to the forces of English assimilation.

But the situation back then was far different than it is now. Economically, French speakers were shut out of real participation in the economy. In 1960, French-origin men earned less relative to British-origin men in Québec (52%) than did black men relative to white men in the United States (54%).[1] Interestingly enough, women earned 54 cents for every dollar a man earned in Canada in 1961, counting full-time and part-time work.[2] 

French speakers had trouble being served in their own language at downtown department stores; there were only a few token Francophones on the boards of directors of the companies that ran Canada.

In 1962, Donald Gordon, President of the CN Railway (headquartered in Montreal), was asked why none of his 17 vice presidents were Francophone. He told a parliamentary committee that French-Canadians “did not have the necessary competencies to hold upper management positions.”[3] A weird thing for him to say, given that Gordon himself was a high school dropout. 

Ottawa’s civil service, outside of the Justice Department, operated entirely in English. In Québec, dissatisfaction with the status of French spawned a serious movement advocating independence.

So the Federal government, at the suggestion of Le Devoir editor-in-chief André Laurendeau, set up the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which sat from 1963 to 1969. 

It was co-chaired by Laurendeau and former CBC Chairman A. Davidson Dunton. They travelled the country soliciting opinions, and made recommendations that led to Canada adopting official bilingualism.

As he visited the provinces in 1964, Laurendeau discovered that Francophones in the rest of Canada were being slowly or quickly assimilated, afraid to speak out because of Anglophone anger towards them. No provincial government outside of Québec seemed ready to come to the aid of French speaking minorities in their province. As Laurendeau himself wrote in his diary, which was published in 1991[4]:

“Mr. Roblin (premier of Manitoba) will do all he can for cultural equality in Canada, but… unless there is a major change in the cultural climate, he won’t be able to do much.” Roblin was representative of the provincial premiers who were too scared to act to help Francophones in their province.

Indeed, in all the provincial capitals he visited outside of Quebec, the general attitude towards French-English relations by provincial governments was to keep the status quo going and “don’t rock the boat.” 

Laurendeau, more scared of American assimilation influence on Quebec culture than of influences from the rest of Canada, was not afraid to rock the boat. He and the “B&B Commission” called attention to the disparity between French and English earners, and the lack of services and educational opportunities available to Francophones. They could not have been more high profile, filling newspapers and airwaves with their debates.

André Laurendeau died in 1968, but the B & B Commission carried on. When they released their report in 1969, Pierre Trudeau’s government swiftly enacted the Official Languages Act, establishing the requirement of the federal government to serve Canadians in English and French. It was hoped that this would help the career prospects of Francophone federal civil servants.

Across Canada, product packaging had to be in both official languages. Anglophone provinces all improved access to education in French. New Brunswick declared itself officially bilingual.

The backlash to bilingualism was strong in Western Canada, where some people thought that Ottawa was trying to “shove French down our throats.” And Laurendeau, an icon of Québec’s nationalism movement, was called a traitor for participating in an Ottawa project. In 1974, Quebec made French its only official language.

Many of the conditions that led to the B & B Commission have improved since the 1960s.   

The wage gap between Francophones and Anglophones disappeared by the year 2000.[5] Indeed, analysis of the 2016 census shows that bilingual Quebecers earn 20% more than those who only speak one of Canada’s official languages. And unilingual Montreal Francophones earn 7% more than unilingual Anglo Montrealers. [6]

[1]  The Quebec figure is from Vaillancourt, Lemay and Vaillancourt, Laggards No More, footnote 2. The U.S. figure is from David Card and Alan Krueger, “Trends in relative black-white earnings revisited,” American Economic Review, Vol. 83, No. 2 (May 1993), pp. 85−91, as cited in Pierre Fortin, Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, 50 Years Later, from Inroads Journal, issue 29.

[2] Inequalitygaps.org, Memorial University

[3] “Royal Commission of Bilingualism and Biculturalism,” The Canadian Encyclopedia

[4] The Diary of André Laurendeau, published by James Lorimer & Company, 1991.

[5] “Opinion: Make French safer by making Quebec richer” by Vincent Geloso, Financial Post, May 18, 2021.

[6] “In the workplace, it pays to speak both English and French,” Montreal Gazette, Nov. 16, 2018.

First seen on the Reflet de Société website

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