The Parti Québécois government is bracing for a passionate debate on its proposed language policy as public hearings begin this week on a bill to reinforce the use of French in Quebec society.
While some fear that the bill goes too far in imposing French as the common language of communication, especially in the workplace, as it extends mandatory use of the language to small businesses as well, others argue that it stops short of curtailing the increasing use of English, especially in Montreal.
Over the next two months, a National Assembly committee will examine no fewer than 85 briefs and 1,200 online questionnaires from the public as part of the debate to ensure that French remains "the normal and everyday language" in Quebec society and a "strong vector of social cohesion" as stated in the bill.
Bill 14 amends the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms to state that the "right to live and work in French" is a fundamental right in Quebec.
Striking a balance between the right to live and work in French in a society where English increasingly exercises a powerful force of attraction has the government weighing coercive measures against more flexible means to achieve its objective.
"Is it coercion to say that you must be able to work in French and give businesses the means to do it? I don't think so," Diane de Courcy, minister responsible for the French Language Charter, said in an interview on Friday. "We will be firm on the principles but flexible on the means." The minister was anxious to reassure opponents that those means would not include hiring an army of bureaucrats to enforce the law.
The French Language Charter, commonly known as Bill 101, has been amended more than a half dozen times since it was adopted in 1977. Each time, it triggered emotional debates over issues such as French on commercial signs or admission restrictions to English-language schools. This time will not likely be any different.
Ms. De Courcy tabled Bill 14 with the clear intention of bolstering the use of French in the workplace, but also in government, municipalities and even postsecondary institutions, with the requirement for anglophones to pass a French-language proficiency test in order to obtain their diploma.
A key provision in the bill focuses on businesses with 26 to 49 employees. They will be subjected to the same constraints as those with 50 or more employees. Smaller businesses will be required to adopt so-called "francization" measures that, for instance, ensure the use of French in meetings and communications and bar discrimination against French-speaking-only employees seeking advancement in the company.
But recent events have shown that strict enforcement or misinterpretation of the language law could become an embarrassment. Last week, Louise Marchand, president of the Office québécois de la langue française, resigned after an international uproar over a language inspector who cited an Italian restaurant for using such "foreign" words as pasta on the menu.
"We clearly made a mistake, we crossed the line," Ms. De Courcy acknowledged. "We need to modernize the OQLF, give inspectors clear guidelines and ensure that we approach the business community through dialogue, mediation and co-operation."
The minister's more conciliatory approach may be part of the recipe needed to obtain passage of the language bill as the PQ minority government prepares backroom negotiations with the Coalition Avenir du Quebec. While the Liberals remain strongly opposed to the bill, the CAQ – which holds the balance of power – has stipulated three conditions that must be met if the government wants the bill adopted.
CAQ Leader François Legault asked that coercive measures proposed to enforce provisions involving smaller companies be lifted. He argued the bill would place a heavy burden of red tape and additional costs on small businesses in order to receive francization certificates. Failure to do so could be met with fines or being barred from obtaining government contracts.
"We don't want any coercive measures. We want to help enterprises. We want to make sure they have the services and we want to work with incentives at this point," Mr. Legault said in a news conference on Friday.
He also demanded that municipalities designated as bilingual be allowed to keep their status if they so desire, even if they no longer have the required number of anglophone residents to do so under the law. Furthermore military families, who reside in Quebec temporarily, should be exempt from having to send their children to French-language schools.
Ms. De Courcy said she is willing to listen to the CAQ, but only after various groups and the general public are given an opportunity to argue their case through the public hearing process.