Vanessa Sasson is a professor of religious studies at Marianopolis College in Westmount, Que.
History is repeating itself in Quebec. The repressive measures rolling out in Bill 96, the province’s new proposed language law, are returning us an to era of top-down control that echoes Quebec’s earlier history.
The language debate regularly returns in Quebec because the solution to the problem will always be a moving target. French is vulnerable in the face of the global dominance of English, and efforts will have to keep being made to ensure it remains vibrant. That is not a history I take issue with. Most anglophones in Quebec don’t either (despite popular fears claiming otherwise). The invasive methods used to reach that target, however, are. I am speaking here specifically about Bill 96, which is facing a vote in the National Assembly later this month.
Quebec was ruled by the heavy hand of the Catholic Church for a long time. At one point, it was virtually impossible to separate from the government. It directed traffic inside every institution, and in the privacy of many people’s homes. The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s pushed back its ever-invasive presence. Slowly and quietly, Quebec communities redefined themselves without that powerful institution at the helm, undoing its reach one tentacle at a time.
And yet, with Bill 96, we seem to be returning to our ecclesiastical habits, providing the government with a similar kind of invasive reach. Where once it was the Church that had a hand in almost every social, educational and medical organization in the province, this Bill inserts itself with similar intensity.
Bill 96 has more than 200 articles and a continuing stream of added amendments. Most people in Quebec have not read it (who would?). In the French media, it is often described as a law that will serve to protect French. This is simplistic and distracting. Bill 96 in fact grants the government excessive powers where language is concerned; it also includes a punitive section dedicated to how others might lodge formal complaints if the rules are broken (the so-called snitch-section).
For example, if Bill 96 is enshrined, Quebec’s language enforcement agency, the Office Québécois de la langue française, will be allowed to read professional e-mails and texts without a warrant to make sure we are expressing ourselves in French. This will apply to medium-sized and large businesses, along with all public organizations.
Bill 96 will be applied to the many health and social services provided by the government, requiring practitioners speak with patients in French, regardless of personal needs. Exemptions can be made for recently arrived immigrants, but they will have to prove their status before beginning to speak. Imagine having to present yourself to the hospital with your English papers in hand. Imagine, also, the administrative hassle it will create for hospitals and clinics. The paperwork alone will be astounding.
Bill 96 will, moreover, limit the access of our own francophone community to English colleges (CEGEPs). Currently, francophone (and immigrant) children are required to do their elementary and high school studies in French, but they are free to choose their college regardless of language history. Almost 50 per cent of students at Marianopolis College (where I teach) were previously educated in French. But this bill will cap registration at English colleges to 17.5 per cent of the province’s students. This is disconcertingly reminiscent of the quotas once applied in Quebec to Jews, who were likewise punished with academic exclusion. This is a history we should not be eager to repeat.
The reasoning behind this decision: too many strong students in the French sector are choosing to go to English college. The French colleges want those students back. But young people in Quebec know how important it is for their own futures to be proficient in both languages. They are choosing English for their higher education because they know they need it. This bill takes that choice away from them. Many of our teachers will lose their jobs because of this government-imposed discrimination.
When I think through these details, I see the Church returned in all her glory, but this time in the shape of an all-invasive government. Once again, Indigenous peoples are not part of the discussion, the majority (French Quebec) is eagerly squashing the minority (Anglo Quebec), while the majority remains terrified of being squashed itself by an even larger majority outside its provincial boundaries. Once again, we are not working together as a province. We are working against each other, and bringing our children into the fight with us. Instead of building bridges between our communities, we are building walls.
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