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French language supporters take part in a demonstration in Montreal, May 21, 2021.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Quebec’s legislation to further enforce the use of French in the province creates an “opportunity” for the federal Liberals as a national election looms this year, says a veteran Quebec senator.

“Crisis equals opportunity,” said Dennis Dawson, who was appointed to the Senate in 2005 on the recommendation of then-prime minister Paul Martin after three terms as a Liberal MP for the Quebec City-area riding of Louis-Hébert.

Bill 96 is a chance “to prove that you can be both a defender of francophone rights in the province of Quebec, francophone rights outside Quebec, and still the protector of anglophone rights in Quebec,” Mr. Dawson said. “It’s not an either/or position.”

The political stakes of finding a balance ahead of and during an election campaign will be significant for the Liberals. They have 35 of 78 seats in Quebec to the Bloc Québécois’s 32, the Conservatives’ 10 and the NDP’s one. Winning more Quebec seats will be key to securing a majority government.

As part of Bill 96, Premier François Legault’s government wants to amend the Constitution to recognize Quebec as a nation and French as its only official and common language. Among other measures, the legislation would establish both a minister and a commissioner of French and would tighten existing rules for commercial signs to require larger French text to accompany company trademarks in English.

The legislation invokes the notwithstanding clause to shield it in advance from court challenges. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that Quebec can unilaterally amend the Constitution as part of the language-policy agenda, and other party leaders have been supportive.

Daniel Béland, the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, said the Liberals face a challenge ahead.

“What the Liberals want to avoid is a blow to their popularity in Quebec, which could be triggered by any negative comments from the Prime Minister about Bill 96,” he said in an interview.

He said he expects the Liberals are mindful of events in the 2019 election in which Mr. Legault criticized Mr. Trudeau for declaring he was the only federal party leader who might use the courts to fight Quebec’s Bill 21, which prevents some public servants from wearing religious symbols while at work.

Even though Mr. Dawson describes the discussion around Bill 96 as a “crisis,” he says that, based on about 40 years of debating the issue in his political career, once the initial furor subsides, there is always a balance to be found. “I’ve been to this rodeo before,” he said. “It’s not a new rodeo. It’s happened before.”

Asked about Mr. Trudeau’s remarks, he said: “From a historical perspective, I think everyone will take time and breathe and understand what he said was that they are allowed to do what they are doing. And again, if they are not, the courts will be able to deal with that. He didn’t say, ‘I would encourage them to do it.’”

Sylvia Martin-Laforge, the director-general of the Quebec Community Groups Network, which represents anglophone groups in the province, said her organization views Bill 96 as “problematic” and that all sides are considering their options.

Her organization’s concerns include the impact of Bill 96 on the rights of minorities, the Prime Minister’s response and the use of the notwithstanding clause.

On Monday, the network released a poll of 1,501 Quebeckers that found 73.5 per cent of anglophones and 63.5 per cent of allophones – people for whom neither English nor French is their first language – believe Bill 96 will sour relations between English and French Quebeckers. Two-thirds of the French-speaking respondents said they thought relations would remain the same. The online survey by Léger Marketing was conducted May 14-19 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.95 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Ms. Martin-Laforge said there has been concern from the “Liberal ranks” about the situation, but she declined to be more specific. “We have heard there has been a concern for our English-speaking minority community. Yes, we have heard that,” she said. “[They are] paying attention to what is our community, but their community as well.”

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