It has taken a while, but people in Quebec, French and English-speaking alike, are finally waking up to the implications of the province’s all-consuming new language law, Bill 96.
First introduced more than a year ago, the fact that the bill is getting close to passage by the majority Coalition Avenir Québec government of François Legault has focused a lot of minds on its more controversial aspects.
Thousands of mostly English-speaking people demonstrated against parts of the law in Montreal last Saturday, a highly unusual display by a community that isn’t known for taking to the streets en masse when the Stanley Cup isn’t involved.
Indigenous people in Quebec, whose second language tends to be English and not French, are demanding to be exempted from the part of the law that says students in English-language colleges, known as CEGEPs, will have to take three additional courses in French.
And French-language opinion writers are starting to wonder why the law includes potentially unconstitutional measures, such as allowing language inspectors to raid offices and seize documents and computer files without a warrant in case, as one writer put it, “one email too many was sent in English.”
Most of these doubts are couched, of course, in careful caveats about the doubters’ fealty to the mantra that French is always in decline, and that protections first brought in decades ago in the province’s Charter of the French Language, a.k.a. Bill 101, always need to be toughened.
That’s because Mr. Legault and his party have made it difficult to question the mechanics of Bill 96 without being accused of questioning its sacrosanct goal. This divisive tactic means that opposition to any aspect of the bill, such as last Saturday’s protest (or this editorial), can be as politically beneficial to Mr. Legault as support for it.
Except that Quebeckers aren’t a monolith, and Mr. Legault and the CAQ don’t speak for all of them. And some are starting to question not only the more onerous measures in Bill 96, but also their justification.
This month and last, there have been a number of columns and articles in Quebec’s French-language media that have raised doubts about the way the use of the French language is measured in the province.
Critics say that basing it solely on census data about mother tongue and the main language spoken in the home, as the government does, fails to capture the reality of how often French is used in daily life, especially by immigrants. One researcher took a second look at the government’s claim that only 53 per cent of immigrants take up French; by going beyond census data, he concluded that the actual figure is 75 per cent.
That is more in line with Statistics Canada’s finding that 94.5 per cent of people in Quebec could conduct a conversation in French in 2016, a figure that hardly describes a language that Mr. Legault likes to claim is in free fall.
This doesn’t mean no one should be concerned about the fate of the French language in a world where the pull of English is immense.
But it does raise the question of whether the situation justifies shielding Bill 96 in the notwithstanding clause so that language inspectors can suspend the Charter right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure. Or what the sense is of telling an immigrant that they can be served in a language other than French only for the first six months after they arrive. “Inhumanity and bureaucratic nitpicking,” is how one columnist in La Presse put it.
English-speaking Quebeckers are especially worried that Bill 96 doesn’t guarantee their existing right to receive all health services in English. Mr. Legault insists that this historic and fundamental right will continue, but some legal experts are saying that’s not a given.
What is certain is that, under Bill 96, the Quebec government will have the power to reach into almost every aspect of people’s lives. It will be watching when a nurse talks to a patient in the ER, when a business owner sends an e-mail to a client or posts a job offer, when a refugee calls a government service line in search of help, or when an Indigenous student chooses her courses in CEGEP.
Yes, the French language needs protection. But people are at last asking, at what cost?
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