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People take part in a demonstration against Bill 96 in Montreal, May 14, 2022.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Demonstrators streamed through downtown Montreal to protest Quebec’s contentious language bill on Saturday, demanding it be scrapped to preserve the rights of anglophones, allophones and Indigenous communities.

The protesters, who rallied at Dawson College before marching more than two kilometres to Premier François Legault’s office, made an 11th-hour plea against the legislation, which aims to strengthen the province’s French-language charter.

Bill 96, which is expected to pass this month, would impose tougher language requirements on workplaces and municipalities.

It also seeks to limit the use of English in the courts and public services, grant powers of search and seizure without a warrant to Quebec’s language regulator and cap enrolment at English junior colleges, called CÉGEPs, where students would have to take more courses in French.

Several thousand marchers drove home the bilingual element of Quebec society Saturday morning, shouting chants of “Mon CÉGEP, mon choix,” and touting signs reading, “I’m not a second-class citizen.”

Marlene Jennings, a former Liberal MP in Montreal, said Bill 96 “breaks the social contract” with Quebeckers, while Robert Leckey, dean of McGill University’s Faculty of Law, said it will “ride roughshod” over constitutional constraints.

“Anyone may use English and French in the courts of this province. It’s hard-wired into the constitution. And using English in a Quebec court involves having a judge who understands the language,” he said, addressing demonstrators in English and French, as did most of the speakers.

Leckey was referencing provisions in the bill that state judges no longer need to be bilingual and that a company’s pleadings in court must be in French, or translated into it.

Bill 96 also pre-emptively invokes the notwithstanding clause, setting aside fundamental equality rights enshrined in both the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights and freedoms.

“You know you’re in trouble when you hear, `Notwithstanding clause,”' sang Bowser and Blue, a musical comedy duo whose first gig took place at Dawson College in 1975.

Russell Copeman, executive director of the Quebec English School Boards Association, said he supports efforts to protect the French language, but described Bill 96 as “discriminatory.”

“I think what you’re seeing is a depth of anxiety and frustration that is quite remarkable in the English community,” he said in a phone interview.

Indigenous communities also have concerns about the would-be law.

“We’re being recolonized again under Bill 96,” said Kenneth Deer, an Indigenous rights activist from the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake. “We don’t force you to learn our language; don’t force us to learn yours.”

Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake said demanding that young people master a third language – French – carries colonial overtones and would make it harder for them to succeed.

“Trying to encourage young people to learn our Indigenous language is challenging in itself,” she said by phone.

“We always want to encourage our young people to reach for the stars. But if they want to be doctors, lawyers, nurses – any of those professional orders now are going to require very strict French proficiency.”

Demonstrators flowed mostly along Sainte-Catherine Street, were many retail outlets concerned about the impact of stricter workplace language rules are located.

The changes would subject companies with 25 employees or more to “francization” – government certification that use of French is generalized in the workplace. The current threshold is 50 employees.

Estimates from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business say a company with roughly 50 employees would end up paying between $9.5 million and $23.5 million under the bill. Expenses range from fees for translation and legal services to administrative burdens, such as creating a workplace assessment to ensure French permeates all corners of the company.

More than a dozen provincial and federal Liberal legislators were on hand Saturday, including Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade.

A cluster of pro-Bill 96 student demonstrators awaited the protesters outside the premier’s office. They had guitars and tambourines, and greeted the marchers with a blast of classic Quebecois songs by Jean Leloup and Gilles Vigneault.

They shouted “Vive le Quebec” and “Vive le francais” between lyrics. Demonstrators on both sides were draped in Quebec flags, and several quarrels broke out amid the 30 C heat, but the overall atmosphere remained upbeat.

Steban Carrillo, 21, a student at the Saint-Laurent CEGEP and one of the approximately 15 counterprotesters, said French is threatened.

“As we know, in Quebec the language of work is French, so higher studies should be done in French as well, at least until university,” he said.

The bill’s requirement that CEGEP students take either three core courses in French or three additional French-languages courses has others worried, along with concerns about a two-tiered education system whereby allophones and francophones in English junior colleges would have to take French proficiency exams while anglophones take an English one.

“The bill attacks our fundamental rights to justice, to health care, to education,” said Celeste Trianon, an incoming undergraduate law student at the Universite de Montreal.

Eric Maldoff, a Montreal lawyer and chair of the Coalition for Quality Health and Social Services, stressed without clear communication, proper health care is threatened.

“People are going to get hurt. Literally,” he said, noting that Bill 96 would only allow health services in English to “historic anglophones” and, for six months after arrival, immigrants. “There are going to be errors in diagnosis, there’s going to be a problem of informed consent.”

The legislation also raises questions of patient confidentiality, given the enhanced powers granted to the Office Quebecois de la langue francaise to search and seize files without a warrant based on anonymous tips, Maldoff said.

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