Bill 96 hearings underway at National Assembly
Long-awaited public hearings into Bill 96, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government’s complex and controversial proposal to shore up the role of the French language in Quebec society, began at the National Assembly on Sept. 21. The first speakers were Simon Jolin-Barrette, the law’s main author and the minister responsible for the French language, and opposition MNAs. Jolin-Barrette said the law was “a national priority” to protect “a nation losing its strength.” He argued that the right of Quebecers to work in French “must be better protected” and “knowledge of an additional language must not be a condition of employment where it isn’t necessary.” He added that the law would “officialize the right of all people living in Quebec to learn French.”
Hélène David, speaking on behalf of the Liberal caucus, said the law was “a substantial project with many, many articles which w ill require very, very serious analysis.”
“Although many people were disappointed at not being consulted, we will still be hearing from 51 witnesses, who will be listened to and questioned rigorously,” David added. A number of anglophone community groups were among those who publicly expressed disappointment at not being included in the hearings. On the final list of witnesses, four groups from the English-speaking community appear – the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) ; the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN); the Consortium of English-language CEGEPs, Colleges and Universities and the Sherbrooke-based Townshippers’ Association. No Quebec City-based group was selected, although the Central Québec School Boa rd is a member of QESBA.
On Sept. 23, QESBA president Dan Lamoureux and executive director Russell Copeman presented the organization’s brief. “Surveys show deep division between French-speaking and English-speaking Quebecers regarding support for this law,” said Copeman, a former MNA. “We’ve experienced many years of linguistic peace in Quebec, and this law … has divided Quebecers and made that peace more fragile.” Copeman expressed concerns that specific provisions of the law would affect the enrolment and functioning of schools within QESBA member boards. The bill would reduce the maximum period of English public school eligibility for children of temporary residents from six years to three. Although QESBA’s own statistics show that fewer than 3,200 students could be affected by this change, it “will definitely lead to a decrease in our student numbers,” said Copeman. “If Quebec considers it important to attract temporary foreign workers with specific talents, this measure shouldn’t be adopted.”
Copeman and Lamoureux also expressed concerns about the law’s effect on the ability of schools to communicate in English with other organizations, and its potential enforcement via the notwithstanding clause. “We ensure success in French for all our students and prepare them to live and work in Quebec with pride. But that protection and promotion of the French language should not be done by setting aside the fundamental rights of Quebecers or by potentially infringing on our constitutional rights,” Lamoreux concluded. In response to the QESBA presentation, Jolin-Barrette stated that “there is nothing in Bill 96 that affects the rights of the English-speaking community, here in Quebec, or [its] institutions, and I want to reassure [you of] that.”
The QCGN was expected to present on Sept. 28, after this edition of the QCT went to press. Hearings before the culture and education commission of the National Assembly will continue until Oct. 5. Full transcripts and video recordings are available on the National Assembly website.