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

The Quebec government has secured the largest expansion of its language laws in more than 40 years, imposing new rules to reinforce the use of French in the public service, education and business despite bitter opposition from the province’s English-speaking minority.

With the passage of the controversial Bill 96 on Tuesday, Premier François Legault said he aims to strengthen the place of Quebec’s official language amidst what he calls its decline. Many anglophones, immigrants and Indigenous people in the province, meanwhile, say they feel targeted by a law that undermines their rights.

After a year of heated debate, the bill was adopted by a vote of 78 to 29, with support from the governing Coalition Avenir Québec and the leftist opposition party Québec Solidaire. Voting against were the provincial Liberals, on the grounds that the bill went too far, and the separatist Parti Québécois, which said it didn’t go far enough.

In defending the law, Mr. Legault cited the linguistic precariousness of French in a predominantly anglophone continent.

“I know of no linguistic minority that is better served in its own language than the English-speaking community in Quebec,” he said on Tuesday. “We are proud of that, and we are also proud to be a francophone nation in North America, and it’s our duty to protect our common language.”

The fight over the legislation has increased linguistic tension to a point not seen in decades, some observers say, and inspired fear and anger in the English-speaking community.

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Among the new law’s provisions are a cap on enrolment in the English CEGEP system as well as three mandatory French classes for students who attend those colleges; a requirement for businesses with 25 or more employees to make French “generalized” in the workplace, down from 50; and a deadline of six months for new immigrants after which public services will be offered exclusively in French, with some exceptions.

The Office Québécois de la Langue Française, mandated with enforcing the province’s language laws, will also be given expanded powers of search and seizure when investigating complaints.

Despite legal concerns, the law will be shielded from certain constitutional challenges – based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – because of the CAQ government’s invocation of the notwithstanding clause.

The passage of the law will also have implications for the rest of Canada, as Bill 96 claims to unilaterally amend the Canadian Constitution to assert that Quebeckers “form a nation” and that French is the “common language of the Quebec nation.” The province’s right to amend the Constitution this way, and the implications of its amendments, are contested by some legal scholars.

In Vancouver on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t say whether his government would intervene against Bill 96 in court.

“The job of the federal government under my watch is to always be there to protect minorities across this country, particularly official languages minorities,” Mr. Trudeau told a news conference. “I was a French teacher here in B.C. I know how important it is to support francophone communities outside Quebec, but it’s also extremely important to make sure we’re protecting the anglophone communities inside Quebec.”

Opposition to the bill has flared up in recent weeks as its passage became imminent. Thousands rallied against it in the streets of Montreal on May 14, a protest attended by Quebec Liberal Party Leader Dominique Anglade.

“We have to stop dividing Quebeckers; we have to unite Quebeckers,” she said.

This spring also saw the creation of two new political parties devoted in part to opposing Bill 96, after months of ambiguity from the Liberals, the traditional party of Quebec anglophones. English speakers have been further stung in recent months by the provincial government’s cancellation of a planned expansion of Montreal’s Dawson College and Mr. Legault’s refusal to participate in an English-language debate during the upcoming provincial election campaign.

“The mood now in the English-speaking community is quite bleak,” said Joan Fraser, a former senator and Montreal Gazette editor who now sits on the board of the Quebec Community Groups Network, an anglo advocacy group. “It’s as if we cannot be considered Quebeckers, real Quebeckers. That may be overstating the case, but some aspects of this bill do encourage that kind of thinking.”

Other critics charge that the law could jeopardize access to essential services in languages other than French. Robert Leckey, dean of McGill’s faculty of law, said that forbidding judges from being required to speak another language, unless the relevant minister deems it necessary, may harm the fundamental right to interact with the justice system in either English or French.

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It is also unclear whether the bill exempts health care from the general requirement for government agencies to use French when communicating with the public, said Prof. Leckey. Despite government assurances to the contrary, the result could be doctors or therapists being penalized for speaking with patients in another language, he believes.

“It says the civil administration shall use French,” Prof. Leckey said. “If you want to emphasize that there’s an exemption for health care, put it in the bill.”

The Legault government has insisted that claims about curtailed access to health services in English are false – the Premier recently called them “disinformation” – and it pointed to a provision in provincial health legislation that entitles English-speaking people to receive health services in English, in keeping with the resources of the institution providing them.

Christopher Skeete, a member of the National Assembly and the CAQ point person for relations with anglophones, said the bill’s critics were overstating its dangers because of an emotional response to a sensitive debate.

“What they’re bringing into their discussion is concern and fear and apprehension and that clouds their ability to see the law for what it is,” he said.

Bill 96 also faced tough criticism from Quebec nationalists intent on protecting French. The Parti Québécois, along with many sovereigntist commentators, wanted to see Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, extended to CEGEPs, which would have barred francophones and allophones from attending English colleges. PQ Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon said Bill 96 would not stop the decline of French in Quebec.

With reports from Ian Bailey and The Canadian Press

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