Imagine being at your desk at work and being interrupted by a government inspector who demands that you hand over computer files and other documents. They won’t explain what they are looking for or why they are there, and they don’t have a warrant from a judge, because they don’t need one.
They are there simply because someone has filed a complaint about an alleged violation of Quebec’s language laws. And they can carry out an inspection any time of day they deem reasonable and go into any place they choose, other than a dwelling.
According to a number of business groups and legal experts, the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) appears to be poised to acquire such sweeping powers under Bill 96, the Quebec government’s proposed reform of the province’s Charter of the French language, a.k.a. Bill 101.
Bill 96 is best known outside Quebec for the fact that, once adopted, it would unilaterally insert two clauses into Canada’s Constitution that say Quebec forms a nation, and its only official language is French.
But in Quebec, Bill 96 – which is going through committee hearings at the National Assembly this week – has raised concerns about its effects on Montreal, the province’s economic powerhouse and its most diverse region.
Of course, no one is actually saying they oppose Bill 96; that is political suicide. The mayor of Montreal, Valérie Plante, made sure to declare herself an “ally” of the bill at a committee hearing this week, before going on to ask that the city’s 3-1-1 telephone information service be exempt from a proposed amendment that would only allow it to communicate in English with new immigrants for the first six months after their arrival.
She gingerly pointed out that it would be rather difficult over the phone to determine how long a person speaking in English had been in Quebec or Canada, and also that six months was a very short time for someone to become conversant in a new language.
Others walked the same line this week. Michel Leblanc, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, said the government is right to protect the French language.
But he also said provisions in Bill 96 that would make it much more difficult to require knowledge of a language other than French as a hiring condition could hurt Montreal’s ability to attract and retain companies that work in international markets.
“If Montreal wants to be on the cutting edge in special effects, in the video game industry, if we want to be part of the dynamic that attracts business headquarters that are pan-Canadian or international, we have to find a way of accepting that the language of [international] business is English,” he told La Presse.
This is the political trap that Premier François Legault has set with Bill 96. He has nimbly positioned himself as the province’s chief defender of the French language, and is in total control of any debate it prompts.
The opposition Liberals, whose seats are almost entirely in Greater Montreal, and who need to attract francophone voters in the rest of the province if they ever hope to form government again, feel they have no choice but to support the bill – even though it will negatively impact many of their voters in real ways.
And the Parti Québécois, which adopted the original Charter of the French Language in 1977, is so low in the polls that its protestations that the bill doesn’t go far enough barely register.
Mr. Legault is going into an election year, and the bill will pass into law this fall thanks to the huge majority his party, Coalition Avenir Québec, enjoys in the National Assembly.
Which means the details of the bill are likely less important to Mr. Legault than the message it sends to voters. He doesn’t actually want to see midnight raids on businesses that fail to meet every letter of the law, or to make it harder for Montreal to attract foreign investment and talent.
But as long as he defines the debate, there is very little anyone can do to present a counterargument without risking the appearance of not demonstrating enough fealty to the need to protect the French language.
Bill 96 is not a great law. But it’s good for Mr. Legault.
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