Bill 96 – What’s it about?

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Aidan Belanger

In May 2021, Quebec’s majority Coalition d’Avenir (CAQ) government tabled Bill 96, considered an upgrade to Bill 101, and referred to as an “act to support the French language”, in response to concerns regarding decreasing usage of French in the province. The proposed bill, which is currently undergoing a “clause by clause” review appears to put the freedoms, rights, and equalities of all Quebec residents at stake. Businesses could be impacted, access to education and public services could become more limited, and employment opportunities could be reduced.

One of the controversial aspects of the bill involves communications in workplaces; Bill 96 would force companies with 25 employees or more — down from 50 employees — to operate in French, creating more red tape for small firms. Speaking to a colleague in a language other than French could get you fined. If frequent language violations occur, the company could see its operating licence revoked. Work devices could also be handed over to the provincial government, without a warrant, to ensure that
conversations relating to work are in French.

Bill 96 also looks to control the number of French-speaking students allowed to attend English-language CEGEPs. Students in English CEGEPs would be obliged to pass three regular French courses to graduate.

Municipalities and courts threatened?
If passed, municipalities in Quebec could be at risk of losing their bilingual status if census data demonstrates that English is the first language of less than 51 per cent of their population. Immigrants would have only six months to learn the language before all written public service communications switch to French-only.

The government could refuse to do business with anyone who is not considered compliant, leading to fewer grants and subsidies for English-owned businesses and organizations.

Quebec’s justice system runs the risk of becoming more difficult for English-speaking residents, as legal proceedings will require certified French translations, increasing costs and causing delays. In turn, the average citizen might be less likely to defend their individual rights and freedoms. André Fortin, MNA for the Pontiac and participating in the review, stated that “residents have a fundamental right to access judicial services in their own language…for me, this item is non-negotiable.”

Robert Bussière, MNA for Gatineau, claimed that “English in Quebec will always be protected.” He assured citizens that they will be offered services provided in English and that the aim of the bill is not to exclude other languages, but to protect the French language.

In a recent poll conducted by the Association for Canadian Studies, 30.8 per cent of French speakers said that Bill-96 makes them prouder of being Québécois. When asked how relations between French and English speakers might be affected, 64.8 per cent of French respondents said they wouldn’t change.

Simon Jolin-Barrette, the province’s French language minister, stated that Bill 96 will benefit everyone. He said that he “want[ed] to reassure the English-speaking community [that] this bill is for inclusion, to include every Quebecer in Quebec, that everybody is part of the society. We are not taking any rights away from anybody in that bill.”

The National Assembly will reconvene after March 15th, when the fate of the bill will likely come down to a vote.