Bill 96, the provincial government’s controversial legislation aimed at protecting the French language in Quebec, has been adopted in the National Assembly.
MNAs voted 78-29 in favor of passing the law Tuesday afternoon, with opposition members from the Liberal Party and Parti Québécois voting against it.
The passing of the bill comes as a constitutional lawyer based in Montreal says he, along with a committee of other lawyers, plan to challenge it in court.
Bill 96 “is…the most gratuitous use of power I’ve ever seen,” said Julius Gray on Tuesday, hours before the legislation was adopted.
Meanwhile, Quebec Premier François Legault told English-speakers on Tuesday afternoon that the province is making a “historic promise” that they will “keep” their services, also saying he believes they’re better served already in their own language than any other linguistic minority.
Reacting to the bill’s passage while at a news conference in Vancouver, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters he has “concerns” about Bill 96, but did not give a clear answer when asked if the federal government would intervene in a legal challenge.
“We continue to look very carefully at what the final form of this will take and we will base our decision on what we see as the need to keep minorities protected across the country,” he said in English.
“I know how important it is to support francophone communities outside of Quebec, but it’s also extremely important to make sure we protect francophone communities within Quebec,” he added, noting that he once taught French in British Columbia.
CHANGES ACROSS NEARLY EVERY SECTOR
The bill was designed as an update to Quebec’s original language law, Bill 101, but it contains huge, sweeping changes that will make deep marks in the justice system and college education system, among many other sectors of Quebec society.
Among other things, it would make it mandatory for new immigrants in Quebec to communicate with any government entity entirely in French starting just six months after their arrival.
The bill would also change the system for deciding how many judges in Quebec must be bilingual, shifting that power to the justice minister — who is currently the same person as the minister responsible for French.
It would cap enrollment levels at English-language CEGEPs, making the colleges more and more difficult to get into as their growth will be halted at 2019 levels.
Within those colleges, students would also face new requirements — some would need to pass a French-language exam in order to graduate and to take some of their core classes in French, while unilingual English students would also need to take more classes to learn French.
That will, in turn, drastically change the staffing of the colleges, they’ve said, spurring a better hiring of French-language teachers and likely putting the jobs of some English-speaking teachers at risk.
There’s been much confusion about what kind of effect the law will have on health care, with lawyers warning that its language leaves the door open to a serious change in how easy it is to get health care in English, and the government insisting verbally that nothing will change on that front.
Verbal assurances, however, come cheap, say the legal critics, whereas the bill as written is expansive and very complicated, leaving much uncertain.
‘I KNOW OF NO LINGUISTIC MINORITY THAT IS BETTER SERVED’: LEGAULT
Legault called that criticism “disinformation” last week. He said again on Tuesday, after the bill’s passage, that the government is promising English services will be maintained.
“I know there are some who are adding fuel to the fire by claiming that Bill 96 will prevent English-speaking Quebecers from receiving health-care services in English,” Legault said.
“We know that some of the people are worried. We are committed to protecting your access to health care in English. It is a historical promise that we will keep, and you will continue to have, English-speaking hospitals, schools, CEGEPs and universities,” he continued.
“I know of no linguistic minority that is better served in its own language than the English-speaking community in Quebec.”
The premier added that “we are proud of that,” and that “we are also proud to be a francophone nation in North America and it’s our duty to protect our common language, and I invite all Quebecers to speak it, to love it and to protect it.”
LANGUAGE REFORM BILL TOO ‘DIVISIVE’: ANGLADE
Liberal leader Dominique Anglade said her party is against several sections of the bill, including the requirement that all new immigrants receive government services only in French after they’ve lived in Quebec for six months.
“It’s not realistic, it’s not acceptable. There are lots of families that will be affected by that. It will be a negative impact,” Anglade said after the bill was passed.
Speaking at a press scrum, she said people who live in Quebec can be for the promotion and protection of French, but also against Bill 96 because it “divides Quebecers.”
Her message to the anglophone community Tuesday was to vote in the upcoming provincial election in October.
“That’s one way to voice what type of Quebec you want. Do we want a Quebec where, yes, we can protect and promote French, [but] where we do this in an inclusive way where everybody feels respected, regardless of the language you speak at your house?”
WHO QUALIFIES AS AN ENGLISH SPEAKER?
The head of the Quebec Community Groups’ Network or QCGN, an umbrella group representing English-speaking Quebecers, said that after a year of trying to educate people about the bill and sway lawmakers to alter it, the final bill “still is not what we SE busca.”
“It’s a sad day. I think it’s a sad day for all of Quebec,” said QCGN director Sylvia Martin-Laforge.
Like the lawyers planning to challenge the bill, she said she finds the way it was passed — shielding it from most legal appeals — disturbing.
“The preventative use of the notwithstanding clause is incredibly troublesome,” she said. “We can’t appeal to either the Charter of Rights of Quebec or the Canadian Charter.”
The lawyers, so far represented by constitutional lawyer Julius Grey, plan to take their case all the way to the United Nations if needed, Gray said Tuesday.
In a statement, the QCGN said they do have a “vision of an inclusive Quebec where French is the common language” and that most English-speakers “favour promoting and protecting the French language in Quebec – and throughout Canada.”
But the group is “convinced there are more effective and inclusive ways to achieve this goal… and that it can be achieved without vacating the human, equality and legal rights of Quebecers,” it wrote.
Martin-Laforge said that one worry that regular Montrealers raise most often isn’t necessarily with any of the sectors the bill will affect, such as health or the justice system, but with the entire idea of separating “historic” English-speakers from other kinds of English-speakers.
In Quebec, “historic anglophones” has been the term used to describe people whose parents can prove they went to English school in Canada, and who therefore qualify for English school themselves, and whose children do too.
Others, especially immigrants, must go to French school — even if their parents were educated in English as well, but outside Canada.
Bill 96 marks the first time the government seems prepared to extend this division outside the education system, also cutting off access to other government services in English to those who aren’t “historic” English-speakers, especially new immigrants.
“I think that people are very worried about the use of the identity issue around historic Anglophones, and what does that mean? what does that mean in practice? Martin-Laforge said.
“The English-speaking community are those who want, need services in English.”
Even for those who do qualify for English schooling, the idea of proving that in many settings in daily life is jarring, she said.
“I and others, what are we going to do, whip out some kind of card that says we’re historic Anglos?” she said.
“How do you provide it if you’ve lived in Quebec all your life, but more importantly, how do you provide it if you come from elsewhere in Canada? The whole notion of ‘historic Anglo’ is a bad one.”
People have repeatedly made it clear to the QCGN that they’re “not wanting to be categorized, not wanting to be identified by the state,” she said.
What people outside Quebec don’t always understand is that many officially English-speakers are actually very competent in French, or even fluently bilingual, like she is, she said.
But there are situations where people should have a right to speak their mother tongue, she argued.
“My example is, when I was brought up, my mother comforted me in English with, I don’t know, Mother Goose or whatever it is,” she said.
“When I get older and I need more compassionate care, the language of comfort that will probably reach me is English, even though I speak perfect French.”
“It’s complicated,” she said. “Health care is about health-care outcomes — you want people to be better…most health-care professionals feel that way too. The government should not be legislating what [language] doctors speak to their patients in.”
With files from The Canadian Press
— This is a breaking news story. More to eat.