St. Leonard Crisis

On 27 June 1968, just two days after Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s election, the local school board in the Montreal neigborhood of Saint-Leonard moved to limit the language on instruction in all grade one classes in the coming school year to French. The action was primarily aimed at families of Italian origin who persisted in their preference for English language instruction.

Nevertheless, that this was a very important step toward imposing French as the sole official language of the province of Quebec, there was no doubt.

Many took the fact as a direct attack on the English minority. Everyone understood that this was potentially a first step in dismantling the English minority’s structure of privilege in Quebec. Besides, the blow struck at one of the most important roots of any ethnic and cultural community’s self-perpetuation and social reproduction, that’s schooling in that culture’s language. Throughout many dozens of years immigrants realized that the gateway to success in Quebec and to easy mobility across Canada was integration with English minority and the adoption of English as the language of education and work. This meant that immigrants educated their children in the English school system, and St. Leonard was the first neigborhood to adopt practical measures against the tradition.

The St. Leonard case was seen as all of this and much more across English Canada, both within and outside Quebec. Curiously enough, those who had never shed a tear for the generations Francophone victims of forced integration in Quebec wept in public for the cruelly oppressed children of the Italian families of St. Leonard community. Even more, St. Leonard board was doing nothing different from what had been done to the French minority elsewhere in Canada for more than two centuries. But receiving a taste of its own medicine, English Canada reacted with indignation. Everywhere from Ottawa to Vancouver, crowds demanded rights for poor children in Quebec. The rights, they have always refused to giver to French-speaking children in the rest of Canada.

The St. Leonard crisis, involving demonstrations, counter-demonstrations, violence, and even rioting, rocked Canada from Halifax to Victoria. This time, English Canada, and most importantly, the English minority in Quebec won the confrontation. In 1969, the Union Nationale government of Quebec adopted Bill 63, An Act to promote the French language in Quebec. The bill gave all parents the freedom to choose the language of instruction for their children and obliged school boards to establish and fund programs of instruction according to those choices. This was a conciliatory law which outraged nationalists. They saw it as a total capitulation to English Canada (well, it was a capitulation, but the last one). Once again the Francophones saw it as a profound humiliation, as a defeat and surrender to English colonialism. Mass protests in Quebec involved tens of thousands. Riots, violence and demonstrations became everyday signs… Montreal police went on strike (just a coincidence, of course), and Canadian troops had to be called in to establish order and protect property.

But 1969 was nothing in comparison with what was to come the next year… 1970…

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