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The Advocate

Local Journalism Initiative

“Undemocratic,” “odious,” and “deeply problematic” – these are just a handful of the words some community groups used to describe Bill 96 during the hearings that wrapped up at the National Assembly recently.

The provincial government’s proposed overhaul of its French-language charter, which would unilaterally declare Quebec a nation and French its only official language, was examined over the course of nine days of hearings. Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister behind the legislation, listened to 50 groups who appeared at the National Assembly and will read another 50 briefs filed directly to the legislture’s clerk.

Among the invited speakers was Gerald Cutting, president of the Townshippers’ Association, a non-profit group based in the Eastern Townships focused on promoting the English-speaking community in that region and strengthening its cultural identity. He called for a complete withdrawal of the legislation.

“Can we work together to find solutions that give us the impression this bill doesn’t target us?” Cutting asked at the hearings. “Because from where I’m sitting, it’s difficult to see how I could say anything else.”

Cutting argued the legislation only aggravates the struggles his association’s members are facing when it comes to obtaining English services in the Eastern Townships, a region that has seen a dramatic drop in its number of English speakers.

He also slammed the bill’s pre-emptive use of the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to shield it from legal challenges – a point echoed by the Quebec English School Boards Association.

Objection to use of notwithstanding clause

“The spirit of the notwithstanding clause is only meant to be used exceptionally and attached to a timeline,” QESBA president Dan Lamoureux told Jolin-Barrette.

Lamoureux also discussed how Bill 96’s restrictions on eligibility for English schooling could harm the province’s ability to attract foreign talent.

“This will limit our enrolment,” claimed Russell Copeman, executive director of QESBA. “If that’s not affecting our institutions, I don’t know what it is.”

Meanwhile, the Quebec Bar Association told the hearings it was concerned with a section of the bill stating the French version of laws would take precedence over their English translations. According to the association of lawyers, this violates Article 133 of the Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to use French or English in court.

QCGN denounces bill’s implications

Unsurprisingly, the harshest criticisms came from the Quebec Community Groups Network, the group that represents a broad coalition of English-speaking groups in the province. The QCGN organized a parallel public consultation process with minority groups who were not invited to the National Assembly hearings.

“Bill 96 proposes the most extensive overhaul of Quebec’s legal order since the Quiet Revolution,” declared QCGN president Marlene Jennings. It proposes to upend 40 years of human rights protection. It would have a significant impact on the relationship between Quebec and Canada, the lives of all Quebecers, and the type of society we wish to build together.”

Chief among her concerns is the legislation’s proposition to amend the Canadian Constitution by recognizing the French-language specificity of the Quebec nation.

“The implications of this for Quebec’s English-speaking minority are unclear,” Jennings told the National Assembly. “It is not clear who is part of the ‘Quebec nation.’ Given recent government immigration policies, Bill 21, and this bill, the picture that emerges is that the Quebec nation does not include everyone who lives in Quebec.”

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