Constitutional Crises
Beginnings to Early 1980s

Questions to ask yourself:

Why did some Québeckers want to have their own country?  Did the Canadian Federation (and Constitution) help protect regional cultures?  What are the connections between language and culture?  

What you will be able to do:

Indicate the demands made by linguistic groups and the Québec Nationalists.

Indicate the means used by the provinces to influence the Federal government.

Indicate the reaction of the governments of Québec and Canada.

The above learning intentions will also partially include:

Evaluate the relationship between the Governments of Québec and Canada.

Context:  Overview video on Neo-nationalism

Demands made by Linguistic Groups and the Québec Nationalists:

Engage:  A few ideas for sharing your own language group!

Share your own language group and family history as regards the language spoken by you and your ancestors:   If an earlier learning unit having to do with topics like immigration already offered the chance to create personal portraits of each student's ancestry, those could now be shared and discussed here as concerns language.  If not, one of the many available "getting to your classmates" activity ideas could be adapted for this purpose.  For example, the "people bingo" idea available here could be used by populating it with questions about the language spoken by you, by family, whether the language uses the same alphabet, comes from the same continent, etc.  Or something very simple could be done like, how would your great, great, great, great grandparents say the word, love?!  Then, get each student to share how,  and also any associated stories, explanations, or contexts with others.


"In 1980, French was still the language of the majority of Québec’s population. In fact, it was the mother tongue of 82% of the population while English was the mother tongue of 11% of the population. In comparison to 1905, the major change was in the number of people whose mother tongue was neither French nor English. This group was known as “allophones” and represented 6% of the population. English was still spoken in certain areas of Québec, especially in the west part of Montreal. On the other hand, many Anglophones were learning French. As a result 92% of Québeckers were able to speak French in 1980. This was a big change in comparison to 1905."  

(Text source: RECITUS via Societies and Territories at French, Québec’s official language)

The proportion of the population whose first official language spoken is French (2016 stats here)

First Language Laws and Commissions

In the 1960s many Québeckers, both Francophone and Anglophone, were especially conscious of their own cultural experience.  It was a period known as the Quiet Revolution, where in Québec many social and cultural changes were taking place, as they were througout the Western World.  And though new Québecois artists were emerging and a new cultural vitality was present in Francophone Québec, it was also equally apparent that the French-Canadian cultural experience was "just a small enclave of French speakers surrounded by English."

In 1969 the government itself began to try to influence the situation through Bill 63, a law that ensured French courses were available and that expanded the role of the Office québécois de la langue française. But this and the protections for language already in the BNA act were felt to be insufficient.  A commission (a group of people officially charged with a particular function) led by the linguist Jean-Denis Gendron was assigned to study the matter, and various recommendations emerged. 

Indeed, people in Québec had long been concerned about the situation of the French language. Not only was the presence of English-language cultural influence especially evident during this period, but English had continued to be the language of business.  Bilingualism in such a context was considered too much of a "burden", since it was felt a bilingual state would need "to be carried mostly by the Francophone population."  The Commission recommended the government “make French the shared language of the Quebecers, in other words a language which, since mastered by everyone, would become the instrument of communication in situations of contact between Francophone and non-Francophone Quebecers.” English would be seen as one of two “national" languages, but measures should be taken to actively encourage immigrants to learn and speak French.  

The recommendations of the Gendron Commission provided key inspiration for policies eventually written into law in Bill 22, the Official Language Act (1974) and Bill 101, the Charte de la langue française (1977).

(Text source:  Paul Rombough, from various sources in main document collection here.)

Small section of "La carte de la francophonie" by Allix Piot 

Source: The Montreal Gazette - Sep 4, 1969. Photo by Paul Durant via 

Demonstration in Montreal under the theme "All of Quebec protests today to live in French", 1989 © Serge Jongué, Archives de la FTQ,  via Societies & Territories: French, Québec’s official language

Anglophone and Quebeckers' reactions collide

In 1968, Francophone parents in the north-Montreal area of St. Leonard demanded that French be recognized as the only language for teaching in schools. Anglophones protested, and violence eventually erupted into the streets, and into further protests by both groups that eventually led the provincial government to introduce Bill 63 mentioned above 1969.  

However, the fact that this law also included provisions to allow parents to choose the language in which their children would be educated was seen by Francophones as insufficient as a means to protect their language's continuation, and even a threat.  This eventually caused even more protests, with over 30,000 people taking to the streets in Montreal and Quebec City to express their dissatisfaction.

(Text source:  Paul Rombough, from various sources in main document collection here.)

Source: Would You Call it a Foam of Bilingualism. John Collins. 1968-69 Public Domain. 

Official Languages Act (Bill 22)

The notion that one province could decide on its own what languages were official within its own borders was a relatively new idea that began to take form in laws like Bill 63. In that law, English was accepted as one of two national languages for Québec.  However, things changed in the early 1970s.

Robert Bourassa, leader of the Liberal Party of Québec,  had won a majority in the 1970 election, precisely on a promise to protect the French language.  Then in 1974, "despite persistent opposition from Québec’s anglophone and Italian communities, Bourassa’s government passed Bill 22" which is also known as Québec's "Official Language Act".  Unlike the earlier laws, Bill 22 declared French the only official language of Québec.

Companies (stores, but also larger corporations) had to change their name to French equivalents and advertise mainly in French.  They also required a certificate of francization, which they could get only if they proved they could function and address their employees in French.  Students had to pass a test to get into an English school.  This angered again the English community, while French speakers continued to say the law didn't do enough to protect their language.

(Text source:  Paul Rombough, from various sources in main document collection here.) 

125,000 protest in front of Laval University in Quebec.  From journal  "À Propos", May 27, 1974 via  

Bill 101: The Charter of the French language

Controversial but ultimately effective, the goal of the Bill 101 Charter was to completely correct the situation whereby French-speaking people were often expected to work in English:  "Bill 101 introduced strict guidelines to ensure French was treated as the official language used in workplaces and educational institutions across the province."

One other key feature of the Charter was to prohibit signs in English.  Initially, this did not apply to trademark names, but for the rest of the sign that would be on display publically, Bill 101 insisted that French be displayed prominently.  Some exceptions were made for Non-Francophone events and for some services like Hospitals where Bill 101 actually clarified that "services in healthcare must be offered in English and French."  This aspect of the Bill 101 was argued against successfully in the Supreme Court of Canada, but after that court ruling,  Bourassa's government used the notwithstanding clause to override it.  Then they created Bill 178, which maintained French as the only language on outdoor "public signs, posters and commercial advertising" and within shopping centres and the public transit system.

Apart from the restrictions on signage, perhaps the most important ruling was that "all children must be educated in French until the end of their secondary studies, whether in a public school or a subsidized private school."  This meant that new immigrants learned French more quickly, and so became French-speaking Québeckers as well.  One can thus conclude that Bill 101 was ultimately successful.  Even though many people in the province speak two or even three languages, the end result of Bill 101 was that Québec remained "clearly, unambiguously, and undebatably a French-speaking province."

(Text source:  Paul Rombough, from various sources in main document collection here, unless hyper-linked or otherwise noted.) 

Image source: Bilingual Signs by  Aislin s  "In Copyright – Non-commercial Use Permitted"  See also McCord image search for Bill 101 at Musée McCord Museum - Results

Explore further:  Create a mind map of the main "groups" involved.

Read the available texts above on language groups and various laws put forth by governments in Québec related to language use in public and in schools and businesses in Québec.

Create a map that identifies (and maybe relates)  the main "groups" that were involved.  (From 3 to 5 key groups).  If at some point you focus on one individual, try first to identify which group(s) they belonged to.  Read any appropriate documents from your teacher, in your textbook, or in our main document collection. Follow available links to confirm your choices, and also to complete some of the following information about the groups:  their philosophies and beliefs, their political experience if any, their ability to influence others, their position of power or not, key members of the group, whether that group exists today.  

Analyze Caricatures and Cartoons

A while back I contributed to a teacher guide called "Introduction to Interpreting Contemporary Editorial Cartoons” for the McCord Museum. Though all the links to the images on their new site are broken, the information and thumbnails should be enough, and the ideas remain valid:  i.e.  Identify the message, establish the links to current news events, identify thecomponents of two cartoons, prepare a visual and written presentation using these cartoons... etc.

You could give it a look (and a try!) here using our old PDF copy.  (PR)

Means used by the provinces to influence the federal government:

Source and list of all annual conferences at: PREMIERS' CONFERENCES 1887 - 2002.  Image copyright unknown.

A History of Meetings, Negotiations and Debates:

Much like the early conferences that defined and brought about the Canadian Confederation, meetings of the heads of the Provinces were a regular occurrence that have continued to this day. Called "First Ministers' Conferences" since the 1960s, these conferences are important since they allow the Provincial leaders to negotiate for Federal monies, but also since sometimes jurisdictions and powers overlap and clarifications often need to be made. Similarly, the central government often needs Provincial support for large scale projects that involve the different regions.  Today, territorial governments are often invited to these meetings, as is the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations

During these meetings and negotiations, Québec leaders have always been particularly concerned with jurisdiction, and with ensuring that "the federal government restricts its influence to its own and not provincial powers."  But they were also interested in trying to keep related jurisdictions in provincial hands.  For example, cultural institutions were provincial, so it made sense to Québec governments that communication also be a provincial jurisdiction and not something controlled by Ottawa. 

"During the 1980s and 1990s, several negotiation sessions between the provincial and federal governments aimed to redefine the political functioning of the Canadian federation as provided for in the constitution. This led to heated debates, as the centralizing tendencies of the federal government often conflicted with the desire for autonomy expressed by several provinces, particularly Québec."  (RECITUS)

(Text source:  Paul Rombough, from various sources in main document collection here, unless hyper-linked or otherwise noted.) 

Consultations and Conferences on Constitutional Change 

The Canadian Constitution of 1867, known as the British North America Act, was just that, a British Act.  It was the "British law (also called a statute) that created​ Canada​ and provided it with its basic constitutional functions. It formally united the colonies entering Confederation and established federalism - meaning the distribution of powers between the federal Parliament and the provincial legislatures. [...] as a British statute, the British North America Act could only be changed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom."  (Source)

Though the 1931 Statute of Westminister enabled Canada to control its own affairs and no longer be subject to the authority of the British Parliament (ex. it could pass its own laws independently and amend its own constitution)  "the British parliament had retained the power to amend Canada's Constitution Acts" and Patriation was required, to bring the constitution home and separate control of it from Britain completely, to make it our own.  

While Québec's concern remained to clarify and enhance provincial jurisdiction, the Federal government in Ottawa saw the constitutional process as a way for Canada as a whole to acquire full sovereignty and to be independant from Britain.  And since the Federal government saw itself as the only "national" government it also "felt it was necessary to centralize powers even more" to further solidify our sovereignty.

As Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau "assembled a group of constitutional advisers. He also drafted a set of federal demands for new, centralized powers over the economy. He wanted what he called a “people’s package” added to the Constitution; it would include a new Charter of Rights and Freedoms."  However, he also recognized the importance of getting Provincial support to patriate the Constitution.  The Premiers of the Provinces were shocked by his tactics, but they also agreed to  "a summer constitutional roadshow" and a formal First Ministers conference.

(Text source:  Paul Rombough, from various sources in main document collection here, unless hyper-linked or otherwise noted.) 

Understanding Québec's Long History of Reactions to Constitutional Reform

Let's go back a bit in time and try to understand Québec's initial perspectives and the positions they took that eventually led them to not signing the Canadian Constitution of 1982.  (i.e. It wasn't simply because Levesque didn't get a chance to see the agreements before breakfast!)

Jean Lesage:

As mentioned earlier, Québec's reactions often had to do with “jurisdiction” and these reactions began to take form in the 1960s.  Premier Jean Lesage's government was interested in "broadening Québec’s tax base, extending its jurisdictions to the international scene and recovering the areas of provincial responsibility in which the federal government had interfered since World War II."  So, in 1961 when the Patriation of the Constitution was proposed without a new amending formula, Lesage rejected it because it again gave the Federal government too much power.  A 1966 attempt contained a new formula, but that was also rejected, this time because it did not give Québec enough guarantees as concerns its culture and language.

Jean Lesage, Quebec Premier from 1960 to 1966 with his family. Copyright Gabriel Desmarais via

Daniel Johnson:

The Union Nationale government of Daniel Johnson (1966-68) proposed a "flexible formula for dividing responsibilities, enabling each province to bear those responsibilities it most needed."  Again, jurisdiction of "human resources, culture, communications, social security and civil law" were some of its main concerns, but this time it was the Federal government and the other provinces rejecting a new arrangment, seeing Johnson's "equal partner" and "two nations" perception as something that would decentralize federalism too much.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau et Daniel Johnson. 1965 

Robert Bourassa:

Expanding on the concepts and beliefs (and demands) of his predecessors, Bourassa also emphasised Québec’s cultural sovereignty.  Québec, he believed, wanted to manage a government on its own, so that it could better develop its unique cultural personality and character within a larger "bicultural federation". He insisted the rest of Canada (and any new Constitution) acknowledge Québec "distinctiveness".  Sure, he could agree to a Canadian Charter of Rights, but only if it did not prevent Québec from developing its own. 

(The texts above are by Paul Rombough, from various sources in main document collection here.

Robert Bourassa. 1973. Photo: Studio Therrien enr, Archives de l’Assemblée nationale du Québec, Fonds Yvon Vallières. via

Overview video on Referendum of 1980 and Constitutional Repatriation

René Lévesque:  Goal of Sovereignty ... but he continued to advocate for Québec-Canada duality

René Lévesque, leader of the Parti Québécois, on provincial election night, Paul Sauvé Arena, Montreal, October 29, 1973. © Library and Archives Canada. (PA-115039) via britannica.

"With the election of the Parti Québécois in November 1976, Québec’s constitutional priorities changed. For the first time in Québec’s political history, Québec voters brought to power a party advocating Québec’s accession to sovereignty." That being said, Levesque continued to attend Provincial Minister meetings and intergovernmental conferences, and he continued to push for a new "division of powers before repatriating the constitution." 

Also like for his predecessors, language was key, and he continued to object to "the insertion of linguistic rights into the country’s [i.e. Canada's] constitution."  He felt that language issues and rights were better entrusted to specialized constitutional courts.  He, and most Quebeckers, felt that they should have the final say on language issues in their province.  Better not to include language rights in the constitution at all, he felt. 

The separatist government of René Lévesque was elected in 1976 by promising a referendum on sovereignty, and they fulfilled that promise in early 1980.  

The question to the people asked them for a mandate to negotiate equally with the Canadian government, on the idea of an economic association but where Québec would become its own country in all other aspects.  It read:

The Government of Québec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Québec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad — in other words, sovereignty — and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will only be implemented with popular approval through another referendum; on these terms, do you give the Government of Québec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Québec and Canada?”

(Text source:  Paul Rombough, from various sources in main document collection here, unless hyper-linked or otherwise noted.) 

Significant campaigns in Quebec | The election of René Lévesque in 1976 (R.C. - In French)

Read and view also:
Recalling the question that divided families, and the night the No side won

Forty years after a Yes-side supporter's tears of anguish were caught on camera, he speaks candidly about what has changed — and what hasn't...  The Montreal Gazette 

Investigate Provincial-Federal Relations

After reading over the histories of various meetings and the various examples of the Provinces jostling for power within the Canadian Confederation, choose one of the following focus topics to quickly research and report back to the class:

For each quick research topic, gather at least 5 documents (texts, images, videos, etc.) and add them to a Google slide in a larger group or class slide deck.  Be ready to explain your image choices and the topic you chose.

Reactions and Results

Pierre Trudeau hosts a meeting at 24 Sussex in Ottawa with the provincial premiers on Sept. 12, 1980. THE CANADIAN PRESS, via  Copyright unknown

Was Trudeau / Canada Reacting to the Threat of Separation?  (Time to get it done!)

Given that constitutional concerns,and the long history of trying to bring the constitution home were not new phenomena, it might be said that Trudeau's original ideas regarding constitutional reform were not simply reactions to what was going on in Québec.  However, the political tendencies in Québec in the 60s, the more radical FLQ demands of 1970, the election of a separatist government, and finally a relatively close vote in a referendum in 1980 were enough to finally get things moving quickly. 

Minister Conferences, as mentioned earlier, were called in September of 1980, and again in November of that 1981.  After the initial failure in 1980 to come to an agreement, Trudeau threatened to make the move on his own. The courts supported him saying it was legal.  However, they added that convention* demanded that the Provinces should be involved and in approval, and given past experiences with movements in Québec, Trudeau wanted as much support as possible. 

After the second conference ended with nine of the ten Premiers signing an agreement in principal, a "Special Joint Committee of the House of Commons and the Senate was set up to hear submissions from the public. [...] The committee listened to over 300 presentations from women, Aboriginal people, people with disabilities, ethnic and cultural minorities, and others."  Trudeau's final move was essentially to try to get everyone else on board, or at least as many people and groups as possible. 

*Convention: behavior that is considered acceptable or polite to most members of a society.
(Text source:  Paul Rombough, from various sources in main document collection here, unless hyper-linked or otherwise noted.) 

Image information:   Indigenous people walked out of the First Nations Constitutional Conference May 01, 1980, demanding Indigenous participation in the talks that led to the patriation of the Constitution. Cropped version of photo from CP PHOTO/Rod MacIvor via Taking the next step towards a post-colonial Canada (Copyright unknown. Attempting to contact the photographer.)

Constitutional Talks, Kitchens and Long Knives: 
Meetings and Reactions from in September to November 1981

Repatriation of the Constitution: Trudeau, Chrétien and Lévesque in Bed, 2000?, Artist Serge Chapleau.    "In Copyright – Non-commercial Use Permitted" 

Trudeau had helped further the cause of the "No" in the Québec referendum to separate in 1980 by promising to amend the Constitution to accommodate those who were still doubtful of remaining in Canada. (See more on this below.)  However, he then completely rejected an initial list of "10 powers to be devolved to the provinces in exchange for consent to patriation."  And Trudeau even threatened to unilaterally patriate the Constitution without their consent. 

Though the courts agreed Trudeau could legally do it alone, meetings were arranged to get the Provinces to sign off on the form the new Constitution would take.  A group of Ministers called the Gang of Eight proposed a series of amendments, and though Trudeau did not initially accept them, eventually in “a private meeting between three attorneys generals — federal Justice Minister Jean Chrétien, Saskatchewan’s Roy Romanow and Ontario’s Roy McMurtry… in an unused kitchen pantry in the Ottawa conference center” a solution was reached that included a “notwithstanding clause” to allow provinces to "exempt their laws from certain Charter rights", something that Québec required to sign.

A few Provincial representatives took this solution, added elements from the initial Gang of Eight amendments, and came up with a draft proposal they could live with and present to Trudeau.  However, they waited until the morning to show it to Québec's Premier René Levesque, who saw their delay as "plotting against him on what became known in Québec nationalist circles as the 'night of the long knives.'  That portrayal would be used to fuel separatist sentiment in Québec for years to come.”

(Text source:  Paul Rombough, from various sources in main document collection here, unless hyper-linked or otherwise noted.) 

«Ils m'ont roulé» They tricked me!, Raoul Hunter, 9 novembre 1981.

Québec reacts to the Constitution of 1982:   We are distinct and not multicultural.

Québeckers have always recalled the Confederation project of 1867 as a partnership between "two founding peoples."  However, they felt that the contents of the new Constitution Act of 1982 rejected that principle, and that it replaced it with the concept of "one State, one nation."   The Constitution removed, they said, the notion of a "duality" or equal partnership.  And most importantly, it removed the recognition of Québec's specific and distinct character.

The new Constitution presented the idea of a multicultural society, which they felt was not Québec's reality.  Furthermore, this so-called multicultural society of the country as a whole was in reality mostly English-speaking, a situation which they felt posed a threat. The rest of Canada could "easily become indifferent to Québec's distinct identity and its unique linguistic and cultural position in Canada."

Why else did Québec refuse to sign the Constitution?  For one, "With the new amending formula Québec lost its veto over future constitutional change."  Based on the original make up and growth of Canada, Ontario, Québec, or a majority of Western or Maritime provinces could block changes.

And finally, Québec was highly concerned about a new clause that protected minority language rights.  While this would certainly have helped protect French language rights in the rest of Canada, it also could be used to protect English language rights in Québec.  And this could have "meant the end of Québec's Bill 101."

(Text source:  Paul Rombough, from various sources in main document collection here, unless hyper-linked or otherwise noted.) 

East and Western Canadians, Aislin, 1992.  “In Copyright – Non-commercial Use Permitted”

Canada Act of 1982:  A very quick overview

"The Canada Act 1982 was formally recognized by the governments of the United Kingdom and Canada on March 29, 1982. The Act created an amending formula for the constitution and eliminated the British Parliament’s amendment power."  Some powers can be amended by the Federal government, while others need a two thirds majority of Provinces to be changed.

"The Canada Act 1982 codified and affirmed many common-law rights into the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."  It recognized treaty rights of Indigenous peoples.  It also made English and French official languages of Canada (and New Brunswick!) giving them equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and government..."  And finally, it gave all people "whose first language learned and still understood is that of the English or French linguistic minority population of the province [...] the right to have their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in that language."

"The Constitution Act, 1982 is a landmark document in Canadian history. It achieved full independence for Canada by allowing the country to change its Constitution without approval from Britain."

(Text source:  Paul Rombough, from various sources like Constitutional history of Canada | ConstitutionNet  and  Constitution Act, 1982 | The Canadian Encyclopedia  and THE CONSTITUTION ACTS, 1867 to 1982  and Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 - Wikipedia )

Note:  The Canada Act of 1982 itself is actually covered in more detail on the page and document collection on the Meech and Charlottetown Accords here, which also details further developments (and constitutional crises!) in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Create Phase:  Project suggestion to make Discussion/Gaming Cards on Actors 

After reading over the texts above, consider the actors and their actions during the Québec Referendum on Sovereignty Association of 1980 and the Patriation of the Constitution in 1982.  Create an action-figure-style playing card for each of as many actors as you can think of.  (By actor, one could consider people, but also organizations, levels of government, etc.)  For each card state that actor's characteristics and also means of influence or powers.

Meet with other students that have also completed their own cards based on actors during the same events.  Throw out repetitions and try to come up with a collection of at least 20 cards, but no more than 30 cards.  If you find your combined collection doesn't amount to 20 cards, create cards for actors whose actions led up to the events of 1980 and 1982, and amongst their characteristics and powers explain how they did or could have influenced events.

Use the resulting package of cards to somehow explain the relationship between the Governments of Québec and Canada.  Here are some ideas for how it "might" be done:

(Of course this project idea could be carried over into the next topic and document collection on the Meech and Charlottetown Accords here.)

Suggested I.O.s
Other I.O.s are possible.

Our Main Document Collection

The texts and content from above were developed from our  main ocument collection here and below.

Certain tasks above may have already referred to this collection, which can, of course, be used any way teachers see fit. 

The Constitutional Crises - Circa 1980

Padlet of Resources

Click to open our curated resource Padlet (mostly the same resources as found in our document collection and above page.)