Bill 101 Protest Bill 96 Quebec

Vintage Bill 101 protest

Quebec and Bill 96: The good, the bad and the ugly

The 100-page document is a mixed bag of positive moves, predictable vote-pandering and questionable manoeuvres.

I greeted the CAQ’s new reform to Quebec’s language legislation with a mix of trepidation and resignation. As a trilingual allophone living in a place where debates about the protection of the French language are a daily constant, I can both understand the necessity of such reforms and be equally exhausted by the emotions and division they always elicit. 

From a first rudimentary reading, the 100-page tabled document is a mixed bag of positive moves, predictable vote-pandering and questionable manoeuvres. Either way, Bill 96 will be seen as not going far enough for hardliners (for whom nothing short of a homogeneous all-French independent Quebec would be satisfactory) and going too far for those who don’t favour linguistic restrictions and champion individual rights over collective rights. The truth is somewhere in the middle. 

The positive 

bill 96 quebec
Quebec and Bill 96: The good, the bad and the ugly

First, the good stuff. Bill 96, which Premier François Legault called “solid, necessary and reasonable,” will create a Ministry of the French language, a Commissioner of the French language, and a one-stop shop in Francisation Quebec, where newcomers can easily access language services and all the resources they need to better integrate. It’s too soon to know how any of this will work, but any efforts to streamline and harmonize a process that newcomers have often said is a convoluted and bureaucratic nightmare can only be applauded. 

More good news: Liberal MNA Greg Kelley’s proposal to offer free French language lessons to everyone who wants them (not just recent immigrants) is included in the bill. It’s not yet certain how this proposal will be integrated, but it’s a positive move, nonetheless. Most Quebecers (regardless of language) understand the vital necessity to make it easier for immigrants and newcomers from other Canadian provinces to learn the majority language and won’t begrudge effort and money allocated here. For the small minority of anglophones and allophones who do begrudge it, it’s important that they understand that pro-French legislation is not, de facto, anti-English and they need to stop feeling unnecessarily targeted.

The decision to also allow municipalities who enjoy bilingual status to decide on their own whether to retain it is also positive, although questions are already being raised about how that will play out as the percentage of anglophones continues to decline.

Despite some francophones’ inability to understand this, Quebec’s English community is a waning minority, with very real concerns about its language, culture and institutions — concerns all minority groups have. Comparing Quebec’s English community to the power that English as a language yields internationally or even in the rest of the country is unfair and should never be used as a way of minimizing the community’s concerns. 

Playing politics

bill 96 François Legault Simon Jolin-Barrette
Simon Jolin-Barrette and François Legault (Quebec and Bill 96: The good, the bad and the ugly)

Now, the questionable vote pandering. Plenty of moves in the bill give the impression of doing something, while not really doing much at all. Some examples: To the average Quebecer, the difference between “clear predominance” of French on commercial signs and “sufficient predominance” is practically non-existent and will change little in our daily lives. Telling Quebecers that they can now file a complaint if they’re not served in French seems redundant when the OQLF and a complaints system already exists. Expanding Bill 101 to federal jurisdictions sounds radical, until one realizes that most crown corporations and large businesses already comply with Bill 101 and many have already voluntarily obtained francization certificates. 

Expecting immigrants to receive official government documentation uniquely in French after a mere six months of study is a deeply unaware proposal that, once again, reveals this party to be painfully uneducated on the challenges and hurdles immigrants face upon arrival, or, worse, indifferent to them. Is the goal to successfully integrate newcomers and motivate them to acquire and love French or is it to penalize them for not speaking it before they arrive here? 

Another questionable move is the CAQ’s decision to cap English CEGEPs, allowing a small elite of francophone over-achievers to attend English CEGEPs while the majority will be shut out. Francophone kids in rural Quebec who don’t have the luxury of living in multilingual Montreal or being exposed to English on exchange programs will be limited to a rudimentary knowledge of the language. Francophones with deep pockets, in the meantime, will continue to send their kids to private schools, allowing them to master both languages. 

Limiting francophones’ rights to study in English and improve their career prospects, while announcing no measures to improve the study of English in primary and secondary francophone schools, is a losing proposition for young francophones and, ultimately, Quebec, because our successes are measured as a collective, not as separate linguistic communities. Watching politicians who’ve benefited from studying at local and international anglophone institutions trying to limit other Quebecers’ educational opportunities, perpetuating the lie that they can adequately learn it from watching The Simpsons on TV or from the ‘School of Life’, seems immensely hypocritical to me. 

The CAQ’s decision to unilaterally alter the Canadian constitution to include the right to speak French is an attempt at appeasing hardliners who like symbolic gestures of national pride. At best, it’s political grandstanding, and at worst it’s a bad-faith attempt at introducing a new series of constitutional squabbles that have as an end goal to polarize and divide Quebecers and the ROC even more, while serving to paint the CAQ as the one true defender of Quebec. When one thinks about it, this is a 2-for-1 deal, because it plays to most of the CAQ’s base, and it also undermines the PQ, who asserts they’re the only party who can successfully do that. It’s smart partisan politics, but it’s counterproductive to what Quebec needs in terms of negotiating such a change, particularly while dealing with a Canadian Prime Minister who’s already stated that he agrees French needs to be protected and is currently in the process of reviewing the 50-year-old Official Languages Act. 

The disturbing

Quebec Bill 21
Bill 21 protest (Quebec and Bill 96: The good, the bad and the ugly)

Finally, the ugly. The casual and nonchalant use of the notwithstanding clause, once again. Why aren’t more Quebecers concerned about this? What should be used as an exception has now become the rule. Just like it did with Bill 21, the CAQ chose to circumvent democracy because it was in the way. It’s problematic to say the least, and while this routine brushing aside of dissent might appeal to some, Quebecers who value and respect the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms should be concerned. 

In a 100-page document, not once did I see any measures to tackle Quebec’s alarming illiteracy and drop-out rates. A whopping 19% of Quebecers are illiterate and 34.3% have great reading difficulties. That’s one million Quebecers who can’t read or write, but a “Bonjour-Hi!” bothers us? The province also “has the lowest graduation rates in Canada — especially for boys in public French-language high schools.” Nowhere did I see measures announced to improve the quality of education in our schools or major investments in teachers and educational materials, even as a report came out today revealing the number of unqualified teachers is skyrocketing in Quebec because of historic shortages. These are the real challenges facing the French language, so why are they not being addressed?

If fighting the decline of French simply equates to limiting francophones’ access to English and to English institutions, instead of improving French education in both French and English-language institutions, we are failing. 

Protecting French in today’s Quebec

Indigenous languages
Quebec and Bill 96: The good, the bad and the ugly

Another major point: Quebec’s majority language and culture may be French, but Quebec has historically always been many things — among them, and conspicuously missing from this document, the much more fragile languages of Indigenous peoples. Insisting on Quebec’s mythologized homogeneous past and a whitewashed future — instead of acknowledging that we live in a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multilingual global world, and that all efforts to improve the retention of French and its use as our official language need to take this reality into consideration — is revisionist history. 

Ultimately, we continue to play it small. Instead of making it easier and more attractive for international businesses and talent to move here, we do everything we can to make it harder and less attractive for them because of our lack of faith that French can withstand new influences. Restricting English studies for children of foreign workers (mostly highly skilled and coveted by many) won’t force them to learn French, it will motivate them to go elsewhere, and Quebec will, once again, lose out on an international talent. 

I support Bill 101 reforms and the protection of the French language. I recognize the status of French remains fragile in North America and always will be, and I resent that I need to preface every concern about language zealotry with that declaration before I can question questionable legislation that continues to operate from a place of weakness instead of pride in what we have to offer and what Quebec can be. I can support efforts to ensure that French remains our common language while also begrudging the fact that we constantly refuse to play up our strongest assets in a global market as the most bilingual province in Canada and Montreal as the most trilingual city in North America.

Even if I welcome many of the proactive measures and positive affirmations introduced in Bill 96, I’m still disappointed in the spirit of these reforms. We continue to operate like crabs in a bucket, pulling each other down instead of lifting each other up. We continue to seek punitive measures (always the stick, never the carrot) to restrict the usage of English and other languages, instead of focusing on measures to improve and promote the use of French.  

Non-French mother tongues not a problem

Finally, I support reforms to counter a decline of French in public, while categorically rejecting the notion that language(s) spoken at home should serve as a barometer of declining French. What’s declining are unilingual French-speaking Quebecers, but if this is how we’re counting, does that mean they’re the only ones considered real Quebecers by those worried? Once people speaking Arabic and Greek and Urdu have proven that they can also speak French, it shouldn’t matter what they speak in their homes — and frankly, it’s nobody’s business.

Because if allophones who speak French are presented as a problem for speaking their first language at home, that’s not protecting French, that’s just anti-immigrant xenophobia. When one considers the percentage of allophones is only expected to increase in Quebec, thanks to a declining birth rate and an aging society necessitating immigration to replenish our workforce, this perception is problematic. Equating their presence with decreasing French will only falsely increase francophone angst and unfair attacks on allophones. 

All the legislation, all the caps on English schools, and all the unilingual judges in the world won’t change the simple fact that people are moved to protect a language out of love. One can’t fight a multilingual reality and ever-changing demographics with parochial and insular laws. I want to see more dynamic, pro-active, contemporary, education-based initiatives to better teach the language, better promote the French language and Quebec culture, and better instil a love for the language and, ultimately, the notion that this is everyone’s fight, and that together we have a much better chance of protecting what is so precious to all Quebecers. ■

To see the English version of Bill 96 in its entirety, please click here.


Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.