QUÉBEC – After months of talk, on May 13, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government tabled Bill 96, which modifies parts of Bill 101 – Québec’s Charter of the French Language. The goal is to protect and strengthen the French language after studies from the office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) suggested French is declining in the province.
If adopted, the Bill contains a number of measures, including: changing the Canadian Constitution so French is recognized as the only official language in Québec; requiring all commercial signs to be predominately French; applying Bill 101 provisions to federal workplaces and small businesses with between 25-49 employees rather than the former 50+ (working language, signs and procedures must be in French with OQLF inspections); capping the number of Francophone students in English CEGEPs at 17.5%; creating a French Language Ministry, French-language commissioner, and strengthening the role of OQLF; and removing municipalities’ bilingual status if less than 50% of residents have English as a mother-tongue (however, municipalities can pass resolutions to keep it).
Since adopted in 1977, Bill 101 has been amended more than six times; each modification controversial. To protect Bill 96 from charter challenges, the CAQ is invoking the notwithstanding clause, which allows it to override certain rights guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
There will be a broad consultation on the Bill this fall. “It still has to be debated in the National Assembly and can be modified substantially before it’s adopted,” said Pontiac MNA André Fortin, noting Premier Legault said he hopes to adopt the Bill by Christmas.
Fortin said the Bill isn’t entirely clear, so he is looking forward to debates for clarification. “There are a number of [measures] to worry about and keep an eye on,” he added.
Bilingual status allows municipalities to offer services to citizens in English: bilingual tax bills, signs, bulletins, etc.
“They would no longer be required to communicate in French and English to citizens. It could mean less and restricted access to municipal information for residents,” explained Fortin, noting that several municipalities in the Pontiac have bilingual status, but the only one with less than 50% Anglophone population is the Municipality of Pontiac.
According to Joanne Labadie, Pontiac mayor, in 2016, the municipality’s population was 5,835: 2,250 Anglophone citizens (38.56%), 3,240 Francophone (55.53%) and 185 other (3.17%).
“Losing bilingual status would have a serious impact on Anglophone residents in our community, particularly seniors who may not be as proficient in technologies to help with translation.
It would also impact local tourism and our summer residents who are mostly non-Quebecers,” said Labadie.
Labadie said council will first have to iron out the details of the Bill to determine what it will do if it’s adopted. “Why take rights away only to have municipalities ask for them back? It appears they are trying to push the controversy onto local governments in English communities, absolving them of any responsibility. It seems Machiavellian to me: the devil is in the details,” she told the Journal.
Fortin agreed: “It’s going to create tensions around council tables. It will create division and that’s not what we need right now.”
Only French for businesses
In addition to the proposed changes to Bill 101, starting in 2022, the
government and its affiliates will communicate with all businesses and other governments (municipalities, health and social services agencies, educational institutions, etc.) in French only. This means the government will enact Bill 104 – An Act to Amend the Charter of the French Language – which the PQ adopted in 2002, but has never been used.
“This is a done deal. Every business, from dairy producers to restaurants and gas station owners would only be able to communicate to the Québec government in French,” said Fortin.
Labadie fears the rules will result in the loss of local businesses when attraction and economic development is already challenging.
“A number of our local businesses already struggle with the additional administrative burdens and costs associated with French documentation and translation from the government and adhering to language laws, while their client base may be outside of Québec. I fear some may choose to leave Québec as the additional burdens and costs of operating solely in French become too great,” she concluded.