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opinion

Quebec's Bill 101 turned 40 on Aug. 26 and, like everything that reaches middle age, the patchwork of laws officially known as the Charter of the French Language is showing its years.

This is not because it hasn't accomplished the principal goals set out by its architects, former Parti Québécois premier René Lévesque and his language minister, Dr. Camille Laurin.

French is unquestionably the dominant lingua franca of business and everyday life in the province, despite the lingering fears of what Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume recently termed "the normal cultural insecurity of a minority people."

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The language laws have also survived a series of constitutional challenges, though these did whittle down some of the original restrictions on the use of English in signage.

The problem for Bill 101 is that, in the fullness of four decades, it has reached the limits of legislative coercion.

It is taken as an article of faith among the defenders of the French language in Quebec – this remains a thriving industry – that language and culture are intertwined and interdependent. Thus, if there are ever social problems, or a sense that some Quebeckers are not "fitting in" with the majority, then the answer is... an expansion of Bill 101.

But there is new, albeit anecdotal, evidence that the laws that made Quebec far more French did not necessarily make anglophones, minorities and immigrants think and feel more like accepted members of the francophone majority.

A documentary aired on Radio-Canada, "Les Québécois de la loi 101," suggests that proficient French is no guarantee of social attachment.

Since 1977, the children of new immigrants have largely been prohibited from attending English-language elementary and secondary schools. As a result, Quebec now boasts a rich ethnic diversity of French-speaking residents. But that doesn't necessarily equate with a sense of belonging.

One teenaged student put it thus: "I've never felt Québécoise, even though I've lived here all my life and my parents have too."

Laws can't make someone belong to a culture. Nor can it force a majority culture to fully embrace "l'autre".

The raucous and occasionally violent debates that preceded and followed Bill 101 focused on things like public signage and school access. It turns out that's actually the easy stuff. The hard stuff is the integration of immigrants, a situation that sucks up a disproportionate amount of oxygen in Quebec's political discourse.

Five years ago, the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal sent faux resumes to a battery of employers. It turns out a Bélanger is far more likely to earn an interview than a Traoré or a Hachim.

A study released in late 2016 by the Institut du Québec, a partnership between the Conference Board of Canada and HEC Montreal, found immigrants tend to be better-educated than native-born Quebeckers, but are also far more likely to be unemployed.

Plus, despite the fact the province selects about half the immigrants that cross its borders in any given year, about 40 per cent have little or no knowledge of French.

The jobless rate among new arrivals may have dipped under 10 per cent for the first time in a decade last March, but it remains substantially higher than the provincial average.

Remedying the situation requires political action – like establishing reasonable skill equivalencies, which turf-protecting accrediting bodies and professional associations have been slow to do.

The most intractable barrier, however, might be Quebeckers' conception of their own identity. In the documentary, McGill University language expert Mela Sarkar argues "Québéquicité" continues to be defined by "what is seen and what is heard."

In other words, skin colour and accent.

Unlike other parts of Canada, language is Quebec's dominant social and political fault line. Quebec is also home to a loud and occasionally acrimonious decade-long debate on multiculturalism, religious accommodation and immigration – all of which fundamentally comes back to the language and identity of a francophone majority than sees itself as a continental minority.

Several political parties are bent on making this a key theme in next year's provincial election.

It is often argued by sovereigntists and their allies in the commentariat that, without robust safeguards – including an endless search for new additions to the province's already restrictive laws – French will disappear within a couple of generations. But there's no evidence that's happening.

Instead, something different may be occurring. By law, almost everyone goes to French school, and by law, everyone in Quebec is equally a Quebecker. But by choice and happenstance, not every Quebecker wants to be, or feels allowed be, Québécois. Those are the limits of Bill 101.