Activists express concerns at Bill 96 consultations
Proposed provincial legislation aimed at reinforcing French in Quebec society could have a devastating impact on English-speaking communities across the province, particularly on marginalized community members such as seniors and people experiencing homelessness. That was the main takeaway from five days of public hearings organized by the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) from Sept. 9-17.
In May, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government proposed a sweeping overhaul to the Charter of the French Language. This reform, known as Bill 96, would affirm French as the “official and common language of the Quebec nation.” It would create stricter requirements governing the use of French in the workplace, require immigrants in the province longer than six months to receive many government services in French, further restrict eligibility for the English public school system and grant wide search and seizure powers to the Office québécois de la langue française, as well as amending Canada’s Constitution to officially recognize French as the official and common language of the Quebec nation. QCGN president Marlene Jennings has said the reforms represent a “significant overhaul of Quebec’s legal order” which has the potential to create a “Charter-free zone” in a number of areas of public life.
Only three groups representing the English-speaking community – QCGN, the Consortium of English-Language CEGEPs, Colleges and Universities of Quebec and the Sherbrooke-based Townshippers’ Association – are scheduled to speak before the National Assembly during hearings on the bill, which began Sept. 21. Last week’s consultations were organized by QCGN in an effort to ensure a wider range of voices from the English-speaking community could be heard, and to inform their own upcoming presentation to MNAs.
“Bill 96 is extremely long and extremely complex, and is not reducible to a robust defence of the French language,” noted Robert Leckey, dean of the McGill University faculty of law, during his Sept. 14 presentation. “It merits prolonged study and debate, and it’s unfair to characterize those who call for such study and debate as opposed to the defence of the French language.” He also expressed concerns about the requirement that some court litigants attach a certified French translation to English pleadings, potentially affecting the accessibility of the justice system.
Leckey called the government’s use of the notwithstanding clause “deeply troubling” and said it would allow the law to be enforced without scrutiny from the courts or from advocates for civil liberties.
Vanessa Herrick of Seniors Action Quebec noted 300,000 seniors in Quebec are anglophones. “Many English-speaking seniors are less bilingual than other generations, did not go to school under Bill 101 and did not have the opportunity to improve their French in the workplace.” She expressed concerns that restrictions on the language of work contained in the bill could make it more difficult for anglophone seniors to communicate with housing organizations, community organizations and long-term care staff in their language of choice.
Nakuset, who uses only one name, is co-director of Resilience Montreal and a longtime advocate for the rights of Indigenous people experiencing homelessness in Montreal. Many Indigenous Montrealers come from communities in the Far North which were colonized primarily in English, and have never had the opportunity to master French. Homeless Indigenous people, some of whom speak neither French nor English, “have a lot of difficulties trying to access services” in a language they are comfortable in, and experience widespread prejudice accessing health services, Nakuset said.
Although the CAQ government has repeatedly tried to reassure members of linguistic minority communities that Bill 96 will have no direct impact on access to health services, Nakuset fears the law will add to Indigenous Quebecers’ fear and distrust of public services, and may put lives at risk.
For some speakers, the proposed legislation went beyond policy change to the heart of their sense of belonging as Quebecers. Author Christopher Neal spoke as part of a joint presentation by several arts and cultural groups including the Quebec Writers’ Federation and the English Language Arts Network. He said the bill showed a lack of understanding of the diversity that has always been present in the province.
“The affirmation at the beginning of the law [that Quebec is a nation with French as its sole official and common language] excludes us, all one million English-speaking Quebecers, 13 per cent of the population, from the Quebec nation,” Neal said, in French. “Do we belong to the Quebec nation or don’t we?”
Video of the public hearings is available on the QCGN YouTube channel, QCGN TV.