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Peter Black

Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Mixed reaction greeted the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government’s long-awaited and much-speculated-upon reforms to Quebec’s language laws.

Tabled May 13 by Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, Bill 96, “An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec,” contains 97 pages of measures intended to stem what some observers and studies suggest is a decline in the use of French in the province, almost exclusively in the Montreal region.

The measures include:

  • Requiring businesses with 25 or more employees, and federally-regulated workplaces, to function exclusively in French.
  • A cap of 17.5 per cent average francophone enrolment in English CEGEPs, with anglophones accorded priority admission.
  • Commercial signs with non-French trademarks to have a predominant amount of French.
  • A new French language ministry and French language commissioner post to be created. The Office québécois de la langue française will also be reinforced.
  • Municipalities with a less than 50 per cent anglophone population would lose their bilingual status unless their local council votes to keep it.
  • Amendments to the Canadian Constitution proclaiming that Quebec is a nation and the official and common language is French.
  • English-speaking immigrants will be able to receive communications from the provincial government in English for six months, after which they will receive government communications in French only.
  • Access to French-language courses will be expanded online, in the workplace and on college campuses, and all Quebec residents will have the right to access French courses. An online portal, Francisation Québec, will co-ordinate these services.

The government has chosen to invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution for several measures, to put them out of reach of court challenges on the basis of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In announcing the updates to language laws, Premier François Legault said the “defence of French is essential for the survival and the development of our nation.” He said Bill 96 is urgent, necessary and reasonable.

Legault has sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explaining the measures. Federal reaction to Bill 96 has been muted. Mélanie Joly, the minister responsible for official languages, said “the protection and promotion of French is a priority for our government … and the government has a responsibility to protect and promote French not only outside Quebec, but also in Quebec. Our government intends to do its part, while continuing to protect the rights of linguistic minorities.”

Opposition parties at the National Assembly were cautiously supportive of most measures in Bill 96, although Liberal Opposition Leader Dominique Anglade called on the government to hold wide consultations on the proposals.

The Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN), which represents many anglophone organizations in the province, was more sharply critical. (See QCGN press release on page ????)

Brigitte Wellens, executive director of Voice of English-speaking Québec and president of the Regional Development Network, said in an email: “In the English-speaking community, we often say ‘One size does not fit all.’ That statement applies in this case. Linguistic realities vary greatly from one region to another across the province and are vastly different from Montreal’s reality.”

Wellens said, “The first thing we tell newcomers to our region is that they need to learn French. The announcement of free or low-cost francisation for everyone is one that I welcomed wholeheartedly.” Wellens noted that while “many of the proposed changes would not impact us negatively, others could.

“Capping enrollment at the CEGEP level, for instance, could potentially prevent CEGEP Champlain–St. Lawrence from developing new programs, affecting its ability to attract students,” she said. “When our youth leave the region to study elsewhere, it not only has a direct impact on our community’s vitality, it has an impact on the socio-economic development and success of our entire region.”

In other reaction from the anglophone community, a Montreal Gazette editorial was moderate in tone, although the writers expressed concern about several measures. “Clearly, Bill 96 does much to protect French. It’s the premier’s assurance about the rights of English Quebecers that is harder to take at face value; it also appears to rest on a narrow definition of who qualifies as an English [-speaking] Quebecer.

“One thing that is already evident is that fewer people will be entitled to ask for service in English from the Quebec government and its agencies, but how things will work in practice remains to be seen. And will non-rights holders still be able to file their Quebec tax return in English? How will access to health care in English be affected?”

The editorial concluded: “It is essential that this important and wide-ranging bill, so vital to the future of all Quebecers, be subject to continuing scrutiny and full debate.”

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Photo from National Assembly website

Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette announced a major overhaul of the Charter of the French Language on May 13.

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