The minority Parti Québécois government in Quebec tabled a language bill Wednesday that backs away from some of the more strident measures the party promised during the election campaign. But while that’s a relief, the new legislation still goes too far in its protection of a language that is as healthy as ever. And now the government has added a disturbing new element, calling on Quebeckers to be “language sentinels” and report violations of the language law.
Gone from the proposed legislation is the highly unpopular threat of forcing students who graduate from French-language high schools to continue their education in French only in the two-year, pre-university level known as CEGEP. On the other hand, the government will demand that English-language CEGEPs give priority to anglophones before admitting francophones or allophones. This would make it harder for French-speaking and immigrant students to find a spot in English-language CEGEPs, which currently accept students based on their academic merit, not their mother tongue. It achieves indirectly what the PQ didn’t dare try to accomplish directly.
Also tempered was an election promise to force businesses with more than 10 employees to carry out all internal communications in French only; the law currently applies to businesses with 50 or more employees. Still, under the tabled bill, this requirement would apply to business with more than 25 workers. This would amount to unnecessary new costs for small businesses; it is a move that has already been denounced by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
But the lowest point in a legislative gambit that seems calculated to revive linguistic tensions in a province that has recently been without them is a call by Diane De Courcy, the minister responsible for the French-language Charter, to have Quebeckers themselves serve as guardians of the tougher regulations and report perceived violations. The language laws have always been enforced on a complaints basis, but it is going a big step further for a minister to actively urge citizens to serve as government watchdogs.
The most recent statistics from the Quebec government’s language bureaucracy show that 89 per cent of Quebeckers work in French, an increase from pre-language-law days and a number that has remained stable since Bill 101's implementation in 1977. All signs point to a province in which the language of the majority is healthy. Quebec has vibrant, world-class film, theatre, book and music scenes. And English Canada embraces the French fact; you only have to look at enrolment levels in French immersion classes to see this. Toughening the law now, and calling on citizens to police it, will not make the French language stronger. One wonders if that was ever the PQ government’s real goal.