Quebec adopts Bill 96 French language reforms amid concerns for anglophone, Indigenous rights

Quebec’s majority government has adopted its contentious language bill overhauling the Charter of the French language, in a vote that lasted only minutes at the National Assembly this afternoon. 

Dissent over Bill 96 had escalated in recent weeks with thousands holding protests, denouncing the bill for impeding the rights of anglophones, allophones and Indigenous communities.

The bill is large in scope, limiting the use of English in the courts and public services and imposing tougher language requirements on small businesses and municipalities.

It also caps the number of students who can attend English-language colleges, known as CEGEPs, and increases the number of French courses students at the colleges must take.

Seventy-eight members of the National Assembly voted in favour and 29 voted against, including the members of two opposition parties. The law was adopted at roughly 3:05 p.m. ET.

The Parti Québécois said the legislation did not go far enough in protecting the French language in Quebec, while Quebec Liberal Party Leader Dominique Anglade denounced the bill’s use of the notwithstanding clause, saying it goes too far.

The notwithstanding clause allows a province to override basic freedoms guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Instead of just applying the clause to specific parts of Bill 96, the government applied the clause to the entire bill, making every aspect of the far-reaching law immune to legal challenges based on the charter.

Quebec Premier François Legault and Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister responsible for the French language, defended the bill in wake of the protests, calling the demonstrators’ fears unfounded and saying that Quebecers allowed to study in English will have access to services in their language. 

After the law passed, Legault said the opposing views from other parties showed the law was “balanced, responsible, moderate.”

Legault said critics claiming the bill would affect health services are wrong because the law does not modify Quebec’s health services law, which promises service in English to those who request it. 

“We are going to guarantee that the status quo will remain, which is that no matter what their background is, people who need English health-care services will be able to continue getting them,” he said. 

Jolin-Barrette called the law the beginning of a revitalized effort to boost the French language in the province.

Members of Québec Solidaire voted in favour, despite the party expressing unease about the clause in the bill which calls on refugees to learn French within six months of arrival, after which they can no longer access services in another language.

Pascal Bérubé, the PQ’s language critic, said his party would have preferred to see the law extend the Charter of the French language to CEGEPS, meaning francophones and the children of people who did not attend English school would have to attend CEGEP in French. 

CAQ members celebrate as Bill 96 is voted on and adopted at Quebec’s National Assembly

In a brief vote on Tuesday, the Quebec government adopted its contentious language bill overhauling the Charter of the French language.

But Legault said Bérubé’s demand isn’t realistic because it would lead to the closure of half of the English CEGEPs in Quebec. 

Instead, the premier said the province should focus on ensuring that a larger number of immigrants accepted into the province already speak French, noting the subject would be part of the Coalition Avenir Québec’s election campaign. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday that he had concerns about the law, didn’t say whether the federal government would look to challenge its legality. 

“We’ll make our decisions based on what we see is the need to keep minorities protected across this country,” Trudeau said. 

Reacting to the law’s passing, Anglade said Quebecers could expect several legal challenges. She said would prefer if those challenges didn’t come from the feds. 

Divisive law

Anglade said the law is divisive and that she has not been reassured by Legault’s assertion that nothing would change in health care, noting that even Quebec’s college of physicians had denounced last week serious “grey zones” on health care in the bill.

She also called the obligation that new immigrants learn French within six months “unrealistic, unacceptable and counter-productive.”

The Quebec Community Groups Network, an organization promoting the rights of English-speakers in the province, said it was deeply disappointed the law was adopted. 

Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade says Bill 96 is divisive, rather than promoting the French language in an inclusive way. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Marlene Jennings, the QCGN’s president, has been a vocal critic of the law and gave a speech at the large demonstration against Bill 96 in downtown Montreal more than a week ago. 

In a statement, Jennings said “Bill 96 is the most significant derogation of human rights in the history of Quebec and Canada.” 

Jennings said the provincial government’s creation of a group of anglophones it called the “historic anglophone community” left out thousands of people from diverse backgrounds, who would be harmed by not accessing English frontline services.

“This legislation revokes the right to access services in English for some 300,000 to 500,000 English-speaking Quebecers,” the statement read. 

The group also said it opposed the extended powers the law grants to the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF), the government body responsible for ensuring the Charter of the French language is respected. The revamped Charter allows the OQLF to conduct searches without a warrant. 

The Quebec English School Boards Association came out against the law’s adoption Tuesday evening, tweeting that it “is bad not only [for] English-speaking Quebecers but for Quebec as a whole.”

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