Italian immigrants have historically established themselves in predominantly Francophone areas of Montreal (Little Italy and Saint-Leonard), and although linguistically Italian is closer to French, Italian-Montrealers have mostly favoured English as a language of education. In 1967, in the midst of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, the Italian community inadvertently became the primary actor in the linguistic debate coined the “Saint-Leonard Conflict.” Here’s a closer look into the crisis that became the starting point of the Belle Province’s linguistic debate in the 1970s.
A brief history
The Saint-Leonard Conflict mainly resulted from the structure of the education system in Montreal prior to the 1960s. Beginning in the mid 1800s, the city’s school systems were divided along religious lines resulting in two independently acting school boards: the Commission des écoles catholiques de Montreal (CÉCM) and the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal. In order to protect French- Canadian tradition, Franco-Catholic schools systematically refused admission to immigrants’ children. This resulted in the creation of a separate Anglo-Catholic division within the CÉCM, accommodating Irish Catholics and eventually also attracting Italian Catholics. In addition, the Protestant system consequently became for decades the dumping ground for immigrants of non-Catholic religious background.
This seemed an ideal situation for the French-Canadian elite as long as birth rates remained high in the Francophone population — a situation that prevailed since the post-1760 Conquest phenomenon known as the “revenge of the cradle.” Yet, the Quiet Revolution was also synonymous with the increasing use of birth control pills and changing social habits among the French-Canadian population. This quickly resulted in new demographic challenges that needed to be addressed more than ever to avoid the French language eventually fading away. By the late 1950s, administrators at the CÉCM already began to observe a dramatic increase in Quebec’s English speaking population while birth rates were stagnating among the French-Canadian population.
In the context of the great influx of immigrants to Quebec, and more importantly to Montreal, in the years following World War II, changes seemed imperative in the Government’s policies in order to prevent the 30,000 annual immigrants from increasing the ranks of the English population. The second wave of Italian immigration in Canada between 1951 and 1971, alone, brought 91,821 Italians to Quebec. By 1960, Italians accounted for 15 per cent of newcomers in the province. Often ill-informed of the existence of a French-speaking majority in Quebec before they left for Canada, they perceived English as the language of work and a gateway to North America’s economy; further compelling them to seek education in that language and integrate into the English minority. “In Italy you were taught that Canada is Canada; there was no mention of Quebec’s specific status,” remembers Pietro Lucca, an Italian- Montrealer who experienced the conflict first-hand.
The Saint-Leonard conflict
Between 1961 and 1971, the ever-growing Italian population increasingly came to call Saint-Leonard, a Montreal suburb, home. The Saint-Leonard Conflict began in 1967 when an act to remove bilingual schools, the great majority of which were attended by Italian community members, from the municipality was proposed in order to compel primary school children in Saint-Leonard to attend unilingual French schools. The motive behind the Commissioners’ decision was discovering that more than 85 per cent of students graduating from the bilingual program were continuing their secondary education in the Anglophone system.
Italian parents were furious and, in February 1968, founded the Saint-Leonard English Catholic Association of Parents, led by Nick Ciamarra, Frank Vatrano and Mario Barone, to resist the decision. The French community responded to the outburst by creating an organization to counter the Italian movement, the Mouvement pour l’intégration scolaire (MIS), led by French-Canadian lawyer Raymond Lemieux, whose purpose was to ensure that immigrants integrated into the Francophone school system. The clashes between both groups pressured provincial politicians to address the explosive issue of language policy. The fight took place on many fronts: within the government, in court, in the media and even in the streets.
Consequently, the Saint-Leonard Conflict prompted a debate on language legislation for the entire province of Quebec, opposing the importance of individual rights to the importance of collective rights. On one end, supporters of freedom of choice argued that the parents had the right to freely choose their language of instruction, and on the other end, supporters of French unilingualism wanted to impose French schooling on everyone except the English minority of British descent.
In addition to being caught in a conflict that was not theirs, Italian-Montrealers felt discriminated against because they believed they were being treated differently than their British counterparts. All the while, the Parents’ Association’s spokesman, Robert Beale, continually tried to convey the hopes and stance of the Italian community stating, “We were not anti-anyone or anti-anything. We were simply demanding the right to have our children educated in the language of our choice, and not have this choice taken away from us.”
Language policy in Quebec
In order to resolve the question of Saint-Leonard schools, the Quebec government, led by Premier Jean-Jacques Bertrand, announced the tabling of Bill 85 at the end of November 1968. The focus of the proposed legislation was freedom of choice of language of instruction for all parents. However, in the face of the outcry from Francophones, the government withdrew the bill in March 1969.
The new plan of action was to wait for the Commission of Inquiry on Language (the Gendron Commission), set up in 1968, to table its report. However, the turn of events led the government to present a new bill (Bill 63) which guaranteed freedom of choice for language of instruction. The government had the law passed on November 27, 1969, satisfying the desire of Allophone parents but, at the same time, incurring the wrath of Francophones.
The following Liberal government under Robert Bourassa enacted Bill 22 proclaiming French as Quebec’s official language in every sector of activity of the province. The right to choose language of instruction was restricted to children able to prove, through written exams, that they had a strong level of English, prompting negative reactions in both the pro-English and pro-French camps.
Once in power, the PQ led by René Lévesque went even further than Bill 22 in promoting the primacy of French Language in Quebec with the introduction of Bill 101 in 1977, which further restrained access to English schools. The bill was strongly supported by the Francophone opinion, yet heavily fought by Anglophone and Allophone leaders.
A positive outcome
Despite what has become an endless debate in the minds of most Quebec citizens, the linguistic struggles of the 1960s and 1970s has paradoxically helped Montreal Italians maintain their cultural heritage unlike any other Italian immigrant community elsewhere in the world. Divided between English and French, Italians depended on their native language to continue communicating with other Italians and members of their family. While children attended school in English, their parents communicated more easily in French; making Italian the communal language bridging the generations. As such, the Italian language survived the first generation of immigrants to Montreal, was actively used by the second generation, and has even lasted into the third, making Montreal’s Italians one of the city’s and the world’s most trilingual communities.
Adapted from Ivana Mormina’s original research paper: BENVENUTI TO QUEBEC: How the Italian Immigrant Community of a Modest Municipality Succeeded in Prompting Language Legislation for the Entire Province of Quebec, (Fall 2013), Department of History, Concordia University.