The streets of downtown Montreal were flooded with protesters on Saturday as many gathered against Bill 96, the Quebec government’s proposed law to reform its Charter of the French language.
Organized by groups that represent the province’s English-speaking community, the protest sought to send a strong message to the majority government that the legislation as it stands is unacceptable.
“We’re telling Premier [François] Legault and his CAQ government [that] we’re Quebecers,” said Marlene Jennings, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network.
“We cherish and support French, we want to see it protected and promoted, but not on our backs, not on our fundamental rights.”
Tabled a year ago, Bill 96 is in the final stages of passing and is expected to come to a vote in the National Assembly later this month. It would make several changes to the 1977 Charter of the French Language, also known as Bill 101, by strengthening the status of French in “all spheres of society.”
Despite the sweltering heat, protesters took off from Dawson College at 10:30 a.m. and marched just under two kilometres to the Montreal offices of Quebec Premier François Legault at the corner of Sherbrooke and McGill College Avenue.
Signs reading “Is there room for me in Quebec?” and “Protect French, but not at the expense of English rights” were seen among the crowd.
While many protesters agreed French should be protected in the province, they said the law will restrict access to education, health care, and justice for those whose first language isn’t French.
‘Extra burden on our people’ says Indigenous activist
Among the proposed changes to the charter include requiring new arrivals to Quebec to receive government services exclusively in French after six months in the province — which many have called an unrealistic timeline to learn a new language.
An amendment to the bill also recently passed which would require students in English CEGEPs to take three additional courses in French — with no exemption for Indigenous students.
Kenneth Deer of the Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk) Nation of Kahnawake called the move colonial and insensitive.
“We’re struggling to keep our own language alive. So Bill 96 puts an extra burden on our on our people,” he said.
“Our priority is for our people to learn Mohawk.”
In order to ensure that French is “the official and common language of Quebec”, the government would also impose new obligations related to the use of French in companies with 25 to 49 employees, limit the use of English in the courts and public services, grant powers of search and seizure without a warrant to Quebec’s language regulator and cap enrolment at English CEGEPs to prevent more students from French-language schools from switching over to the English stream.
Quebec Liberal Party leader Dominique Anglade participated in the protest Saturday, saying there are better ways to go about bolstering the French language than by creating division between Quebecers.
“We’re very conscious about the importance of the French language, the importance of its protection, of its promotion,” said Anglade.
“But we need to do it in an inclusive way, for all Quebecers, and that’s not what Bill 96 is doing right now.”
The minister responsible for the French language in Quebec, Simon Jolin-Barrette, has vigorously defended Bill 96 in the face of criticism, as has Legault, who has called it reasonable, balanced and necessary “to assure the adequate protection of the French language.”
The government has preemptively invoked the notwithstanding clause, which will limit the possibility of a legal challenge against the law.
Despite reassurances from Legault that the rights of English-speakers will be protected, Dawson College student Kiana Lalavie is worried about how the additional French courses in English CEGEPs could affect international students and newcomers to Quebec.
“They don’t have the English rights,” she said. “Their R score would go down, their opportunities in life will be limited and they won’t be able to get into the programs of their choice.”