(July 5, 2022) On May 24, Quebec’s legislature passed Bill 96 into law. As reported by the Guardian the Bill “will require new immigrants and refugees to communicate with provincial officials exclusively in French six months after arriving or face a loss of services. The bill also limits the use of English in the legal system and caps enrolment at the province’s English-language schools.”
Many of the specifics of the bill’s implementation are unclear, and the long and staggered timeline will make things more difficult to track.
The current governing political party of Quebec, the Coalition Avenir Québec, founded by former Parti Québécois cabinet minister and current premier François Legault, promotes itself as a conservative, nationalist party. The CAQ government has enacted legislation seen by many as part of the province’s ongoing anti-immigration agenda. Quebec is Canada’s second largest province with a population of 9.5 million. Quebec settled 33,665 immigrants in 2021. By comparison, British Columbia, with a lower population of 5.1 million welcomed more immigrants (34,385). Ontario, with a population 55% larger than Quebec received (14.7 million) more than three times as many immigrants in 2021 (107,865).
And despite new immigrants representing .0035% of the Quebec population in 2021, Bill 96 puts them squarely in the crosshairs of the province’s more restrictive language policy, ostensibly to protect the use of the French language within the province.
In a legislative session Saul Polo, the Liberal MNA for Laval-des-Rapides, said François Legault had implied newcomers are a threat to the very survival of the French language in Quebec.
The heavily criticized clause in the law calling on refugees to learn French within six months of arriving in Quebec has earned criticism from business owners and tech companies, as well as immigrant advocacy groups. Cree and Inuit communities in Quebec have been among the most vocal critics of the bill, saying that it threatens educational opportunities for their students and the renewal of Indigenous languages already near extinction. And Quebec’s English-language school board, or ESMB, is also calling for a judicial review of Bill 96.
The Quebec government responds that it is trying to “protect the French language.”
Bill 96 increases the requirement and scope of French language education, requires business, legal, and property transactions to be conducted in French, and “provides for the development of a language policy of the state.” It expands the powers of the OQLF, or the Office québécois de la langue français – colloquially known as the ‘language police’ – and authorizes the hiring of a French Language Commissioner to oversee the new regulations. The OQLF conducted 5000 visits in 2019, and had a budget of $25.45 million. Incidents about OQLF enforcements that become public tend to involve restaurants and bars. In January 2022 the OQLF contacted a restaurant because of their predominantly English-language Facebook posts.
The government of Quebec has applied the “notwithstanding clause”, a legal loophole allowing it to bypass the requirements of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Constitution Act, 1982 in order to pass Bill 96.
The non-Francophone in Quebec is diverse, including Indigenous people, immigrants, and anglophone Canadians, and the lack of clarity about the measures in is provoking deep concern.
Julius Grey, a leading constitutional lawyer in Montreal, has said that using this clause amounts to “an admission they know it’s unconstitutional and they just don’t care.” Protests for and against the bill have taken place, but it is now law, and unlike the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government’s short-lived “barbaric cultural practices hotline,” it does not appear to be going anywhere fast.
Bill 96 has serious potential implications, but details and specifics have been more difficult to come by. The timeline for the language reforms introduced by the bill is long and staggered. As of June 1, regulations on businesses came into effect stating that employers “must provide” training documents and contracts in French. Businesses are restricted from requiring that employees speak a language other than English, and businesses can be further penalized if they refuse, or are unable to, provide services in French. Over the next 2 years, more regulations will come into effect.
An exemption has been made for ‘historic anglophones’, defined as those who have been educated in English, but it’s not clear how this will be applied practically.
While Premier Francois Legault has insisted that there will be no change to bilingual health care availability for anglophones and immigrants, it’s not hard for many to imagine Bill 96 paving the way for more dangerous exceptionalism ahead, especially given the already strained state of the Quebec medical system. And for the OQLF to monitor compliance to ‘francization’ requirements, they will theoretically be able to access email and phone records from a workplace, provoking serious privacy concerns.
Bill 96 has brought brings confusion and concern into Quebeckers’ lives, and protests have taken place. Speaking to the CBC, Eric Maldoff, chair of the Coalition for Quality Health and Social Services, said the goal of the new law was “to create enough confusion and enough discretion in the hands of the [OQLF] that people are not going to be certain of what they can do. . .Therefore, they’re going to refrain from serving in another language to avoid getting in trouble,” he said. Many find it hard to de-couple Bill 96 from the anti-immigrant priorities of Francois Legault’s CAQ government.
As written in The Charity Report last year, in 2019, Coalition D’Avenir Quebec government passed a bill banning the wearing of religious symbols by government workers, including teachers and principals. Many raised objections to the bill, saying that it targets Muslim women unfairly. Additionally, under Legault’s CAQ government, a values test been introduced for immigrants, and immigration into the province has been reduced overall.
The pandemic has simply increased the number of white supremacists, right wing parties inside Quebec, which already has the most active QAnon community of all Canadian provinces. Throw increasing restrictive language policies on top of that, and the anti-racist warning lights move from yellow to red.
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