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Federal language commissioner to keep eye on changes to Quebec language laws

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois speaks at a news conference during a campaign stop in Perce, Que., Aug. 7, 2012.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada's languages watchdog issued a warning to Quebec's new minority government Friday, saying he is keeping a close eye on moves toward toughening the province's language laws.

Graham Fraser, a former journalist from Quebec who literally wrote the book on the history of the newly elected Parti Québécois, says he wants to make sure any changes Pauline Marois makes don't run afoul of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"I'm going to be watching very carefully," said Mr. Fraser, Canada's Commissioner of Official Languages, in an interview with The Canadian Press in Calgary.

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"The existing Charter of the French Language in Quebec has been tested by the courts and the current version is Charter-proof ... Some things were struck down, others have been adjusted.

"I'll be watching to see, are they changing it in ways that might change that?"

Premier-designate Ms. Marois told reporters this week she will attempt to introduce a language law — a "new Bill 101" — to stop a perceived decline in French around the Montreal and Gatineau area, which she said remains "at the heart of our concerns." She called language "the centre of my preoccupation."

Mr. Fraser said he is concerned about measures that may damage the institutions important to the English minority such as the changes the PQ promised to make to the junior college system. The PQ promised to limit enrolment for francophones and immigrants at English junior colleges.

"That was part of the PQ's campaign policy, but this is a minority government. It was not a position that was supported by the other two parties so the decisions that are made by the National Assembly will have to win a consensus of the other parties."

Mr. Fraser said polls indicate that part of the language policy is not a popular one, so he said it may mean it's not something the government will proceed with.

Mr. Fraser knows the PQ well. He covered the party when it came to power under René Lévesque. He penned the book "René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois in Power," which details the history of the PQ.

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He said he was encouraged that Ms. Marois used part of her victory speech to promise English-speaking Quebecers their rights would be protected.

"We heard Premier-elect Marois on election night speaking in English to the English community saying she would be respecting the rights and she was committed to respecting the rights of the English-speaking minority," said Mr. Fraser.

"I have written her a letter noting that and saying I would like to talk to her about it. I was pleased to hear that commitment on election night so we'll see."

Mr. Fraser said while number of native French-speaking Quebeckers dropped below 80 per cent in the 2006 census it doesn't mean the French language is in jeopardy.

He said many English speaking young people have been moving into the Montreal area because of its "cultural vitality" and immigration is playing a major factor as well.

"You can't welcome 45,000 newcomers a year from other countries into your society and maintain the same level of mother-tongue speakers. It's just arithmetically impossible," he said.

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"You cannot maintain the same level of mother-tongue speakers and welcome immigration."

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