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OPINION: The devil is in the myriad details with Bill 96
Peter Black, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
Bill 96, officially titled An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec, is now working its way through the legislative process, destined for passage and assent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, likely before the end of the year. Whether the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government accepts some or any of the many changes various groups suggest remains to be seen.
The minister steering the sweeping changes to language laws, Simon Jolin-Barrette, isn’t exactly begging for outside input. In denouncing “senseless comments” made by some organizations in advance of hearings on Bill 96, JolinBarrette said, “The Quebec nation, more confident than ever, knows that its action is legitimate and relevant.” That’s that.
A quirky fact about Bill 96 is that the English version contains 97 pages, the last of which is the oath the French language commissioner, a new position created under Section 186 of the law, must utter to be formally sworn in. The oath is pretty much pro forma stuff, including, one supposes, the vow to “not reveal, unless duly authorized, any information I have obtained in the discharge of my duties.”
The other 96 pages of Bill 96, if you take the time to skim, scan, peruse or parse them – the whole bill is available online – are crammed with a mind-numbingly dense forest of legal language. The bill has 201 sections in all, with two schedules, including the aforementioned oath and three pages worth of definitions of what constitutes the “civic administration” of Quebec. Much of all this is what might be called legal boilerplate, the amendments and alterations to some 26 existing statutes required by the policy change. The list of affected statutes is at the beginning of the bill after its introductory “explanatory notes.” The last one listed, presumably in reverse order of importance, is the Constitution Act, 1867.
Wading through this swamp of legal verbiage, an image forms of a scriptorium, a room full of tonsured monks slouched over desks meticulously labouring over the minute details of illuminated holy scriptures. Although far from beautifully illustrated, Bill 96 is still the painstaking work of a small secular army of legal experts, senior and mid-level bureaucrats, politicians, and of course, the monk-like minions who cobble it all together in a document that covers all the legal loopholes and purports to reflect the precise will of the duly elected party in power.
It’s been about a year since Jolin-Barrette announced the CAQ government’s intention to bring in a comprehensive package of changes to the current language laws on the oft-challenged assumption that the use of French in Quebec is under threat. The minister’s declaration, of course, had the backing of the cabinet, which presumably had studied the question for many months since the CAQ came to power three years ago. Cabinet would have been provided with reams of documentation churned out by officials examining the what-ifs and why-fors of tinkering with inherently sensitive if not explosive changes at a time when most reasonable people would say Quebec was in an era of linguistic peace – that is, if you don’t read the Journal de Québec or the Journal de Montréal.
Ministers, deputies at their side, presumably would have poked and prodded the bill, examining it every which way, putting it through something like a stress test lab for auto parts, with the full knowledge that once tabled it would be attacked with predictable ferocity by a wide range of affected parties. For example, surely the distinctly business-oriented members of the Legault cabinet would have weighed the impact of the elimination of the renewal of the three-year eligibility certificate for English-language public education for the children of foreign nationals who are temporary workers. According to data from the Quebec English School Boards Association, there are currently some 3,000 such workers in a province desperate for skilled professionals, not to mention world-class researchers.
All this to say, an incredible heap of time, taxpayers’ dollars, expertise, thought and reflection went into Bill 96. Incalculable hours went into drafting such complicated, specific and legally contentious clauses. (Despite all that, whoever proofread the English version missed a boo-boo in Sec. 5.10. The misspelled “judgement” is in a clause where the word appears spelled correctly – “judgment” – three other times.) As they say, the devil is in the details, and Bill 96 contains a hellish amount of details, most of which inevitably affect real people.
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.
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