Undocumented. Today that word screams illegal immigrant and deportation. Yet in 1975 my five year old Montreal-born son was classified as undocumented in his birth-province and not entitled to an education in his mother-tongue.
The 1959 death of Premier Maurice Duplessis ushered in a turbulent period of political and cultural change in Quebec that ultimately led to violence and threats to secede from Canada.1 The new Liberal government of Jean Lasage promised to improve the economic and social standards of the province and to win greater respect and recognition for French Canadians.
The rights to develop many of Quebec’s natural resources – water, forests, and minerals – had been sold off by Duplessis to foreign and out-of-province companies. Management jobs in most industries were largely held by Anglophones leaving French Canadians to feel they were the “water haulers” of the province and not the masters.
In 1974 the Official Language Act, or Bill 22, 2 was passed. It made French the language of civic administration and services, and of the workplace. Only children who could demonstrate sufficient knowledge of English were exempted from receiving instruction in French. No longer could French Canadians and immigrants send their children to English schools to ensure they would eventually find good jobs.
“Testers” were sent out across the province.
In 1975 my family was living in Fermont, a small town in northern Quebec built to service the huge US Steel-owned iron ore mining enterprise at Mount Wright accessible only by rail and air. Anglophones were a minority but they did have an elementary school. Kindergarten was shared with the French school board and provided in French. High school students were bused to English schools in Labrador City 20 kilometers away.
My son Stephen was in kindergarten in 1975 and thus was required to be tested before entering English grade one. His father and I were not concerned. English was his first language. He had spoken early and by age five had a well-developed vocabulary. He was an outgoing, curious, and very chatty child and, although we were not allowed to be with him during the testing, we were confident he would be comfortable with what we were assured would simply be part of his regular school day. He expressed no concerns following the test saying only that he knew the answers to the questions.
Some months later we received the results. Our English son had failed the English test and would not be permitted to attend English school! Imagine our disbelief. What could possibility have happened? When we dug deeper with Stephen, he said he was only asked questions in French and he could answer them. What was the politics behind the French questions? And how was a five year old to know the consequences of using his newly acquired fluency in French?
We made inquiries and petitions everywhere – the Ministry of Education, the schoolboards, a legal firm. The best advice was to stay calm – the testing process was proving to be costly and unmanageable. A new system for determining eligibility for English schooling was being developed.
Meanwhile the English school board accepted Stephen as a “Gray Child”. Their term. They would receive no government funding for him and consequently he would receive no documentation from them. That would ultimately mean no high school leaving certificate, the pre-requisite for any post-secondary education. Still we took the chance. English education was our minority right and we would fight for it.
For three years Stephen was classified as a “Gray Child” saved only by the 1977 passing into Law of Bill 101, The Charter of the French Language.3 According to this new law, one parent had to have been educated in an English elementary school in Quebec. Both Stephen’s parents had. The English school board reclassified Stephen as being legal and he and his descendants became eligible for an English education. The precious blue eligibility certificate remains in a safety deposit box to this day.