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quebec politics

Quebec Minister responsible for French language law Diane De Courcy tables a legislation to modify the French language law, Wednesday, December 5, 2012.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

The Parti Québécois has tabled a new language law that falls short of the tougher measures it promised in order to crack down on the increasing use of English in Quebec, but opponents fear that even in its watered-down form, the legislation could revive linguistic tensions in the province.

The PQ backed off its promise to prohibit students graduating from French-speaking secondary schools from attending English-language colleges. It also compromised on its promise to extend French-language requirements to small companies with 10 or more employees, choosing instead to do so with companies with 26 to 49 employees.

The PQ's minority government status compelled Premier Pauline Marois to retreat from the promises made in the recent election. Her government is gambling that it has made enough compromises to allow the bill to pass.

"We are a minority government. We want this bill to be adopted," Premier Marois said during a news conference. "We will take the time to measure the effects of this bill. If they aren't successful we will take further action in the years to come."

One of the more heated debates in Montreal involves store owners who fail to serve French-speaking clients in their language. The government refused to introduce coercive measures against store owners, but urged citizens to pressure merchants into complying with the law.

"There are no language police. It isn't possible to organize this in Quebec," said Diane De Courcy, the minister responsible for the French-language Charter. "What is possible is for every Quebec citizen to act as sentinels of language."

Several measures in the legislation are aimed at bolstering the use of French in the workplace. Businesses with 26 to 49 employees will be subjected to the same constraints as those with 50 or more employees, meaning they will be required to communicate with their workers in French. The bill also prohibits companies from requiring English in their hiring and promotion practices except when it is absolutely necessary.

"Employers should not systematically require bilingualism," Ms. De Courcy said. "I have included in the bill a provision that prohibits employers from demanding the knowledge of another language other than French unless it is necessary to do the job."

Companies who fail to comply with the language requirements will be barred from obtaining government contracts.

According to Martine Hébert, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, small companies will face a costly financial burden in order to comply with the new regulations.

"Quebec has the heaviest regulations in the country. ... And the smaller you are, the more it costs to comply with the regulations," Ms. Hébert said.

The bill also takes aim at the province's education system. English-language students will be required to pass a French proficiency test to obtain a secondary school or college diploma. The government will also demand that English-language colleges give priority to admitting anglophone students before admitting those from French-speaking high schools.

In Quebec, students must complete a two-year college or CEGEP program before being admitted to university. Every year many francophone and ethnic community students who are required under law to attend French-language elementary and secondary schools enrol in English colleges to improve their language skills. With spaces in short supply in several English college programs, French-speaking students and their allophone counterparts will likely be forced to enrol instead in French-language colleges.

At English-language Dawson College in downtown Montreal, the largest CEGEP in the province, 19 per cent of students are francophones and 22 per cent are allophones. Admission is based on the strength of a student's academic record, not their mother tongue, said Richard Filion, the school's director general.

"There are principles at stake here: to be admitted to an institution of higher education, it's got to be based on academic qualifications first and foremost," Mr. Filion said. "You can't administer an education system on the basis of clauses that impose restrictions, merely for ideological and political purposes."

Limiting francophones' access to English-language CEGEPs would also reduce the mixing of language groups in Montreal, he added. "We have to avoid creating barriers between populations on a linguistic basis," Mr. Filion said.

The PQ appeared concern about the reaction the new legislation would have in the province's English-speaking community and insisted that it was not out to fan the flames of linguistic tensions.

"We wish to re-establish a linguistic balance that will allow the anglophone community to take its full place in a Quebec that has French as its official and common language," Ms. De Courcy said. "Today we are proposing measures that are for French. Nothing of what we wish for Quebec goes against English or any other language."

The main opposition parties gave no indication they will support the bill, saying they will propose amendments during next year's public hearings. Liberal language critic Marc Tanguy expressed fear that debate may trigger tensions between the two main language groups.

"It is an extremely important and delicate issue. We have linguistic peace and this is not the time to play petty politics with this," Mr. Tanguay said.

Coalition Avenir Quebec leader François Legault said he saw no need to revive linguistic tensions. "We would have preferred that this not be one of the government's priorities to re-open a debate that has always been divisive for Quebeckers," Mr. Legault said.

The government has put off to a later date its promise to abolish the so-called bridging schools. In order to comply with a Supreme Court of Canada ruling, the former Liberal government allowed children from wealthier francophone and ethnic community families who have the financial means to attend private English-language schools so that they could to qualify to enter the English-language public school system.

Quebec law prohibits French-language students and those from immigrant families from attending an English language elementary or secondary school.

"We will abolish bridging schools. We will take the useful means to do it and it will be done next spring," Ms. Marois said.

The bill strictly prohibits the use of "trickery, deception or a temporary artificial situation" for the purpose to circumventing the law by francophone or ethnic group parents. It is estimated that in 2012, parents of between 12 and 30 students enrolled their children in bridging schools in an effort to enrol them in English-language public schools.

"I find it completely unacceptable that in Quebec someone can buy a constitutional right for their children," Ms. De Courcy said.

With a report from Ingrid Peritz in Montreal