This week, Quebec is expected to approve Bill 96, the government’s controversial bill to protect the French language in the province.
The bill would reform several Quebec laws, including the Charter of the French Language, affecting everything from education and health to the rights of immigrants to be served in other languages.
Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister responsible for the French language, says that since Quebec is a French province, it should use its official language with the public.
“One thing is certain: if we want to improve the level of French here in Quebec, we must first act on the state,” he told CBC. “If we want citizens to use French more, the one who is supposed to set this example is the State of Quebec.”
However, the bill has since been criticized on several fronts, including for its use of the notwithstanding clause, which allows a province to override fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Instead of simply 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 from legal challenges based on the chart.
So what does all this mean for Quebecers? What exactly is and isn’t in Bill 96 – and how will it work in practice? Which parts did critics worry about? Here’s what we know so far.
The bill will cap the number of students who can enter English-language colleges, called CEGEPs.
The number of students in English-language CEGEPs, as a proportion of all students, cannot exceed that of the previous school year and cannot exceed 17.5% of the total student population in Quebec.
Once you are in an English CEGEP, there are also new requirements during your studies. All students must take at least three 45-hour courses in French.
For those who are eligible for English, it may be French as a second language courses – therefore, courses that simply teach how to speak and write in French.
For those who are not eligible, it must be three courses from your core program. So, if you are studying health sciences, three of your health sciences courses must be in French. Eligible English students can also choose to take this route, if they prefer.
Once this is taken care of, there is another requirement to earn a degree. Bill 96 stipulates that a student “who does not have the oral and written knowledge of French required” by the government cannot obtain a diploma.
This means that there is a French exam at the end of college studies. The exam is the same across the province whether or not the student attended an English or French CEGEP, and you must pass to graduate.
However, those who are eligible for English are exempted from taking the exam.
Bill 96 does not change who is eligible for an English education.
Bill 96 specifies that government entities must “use the French language in an exemplary manner, promote its quality, ensure its development in Quebec and protect it”.
But Bill 96 also provides an exception, stipulating that a language other than French may be used by government agencies “when health, public safety or the principles of natural justice so require”.
However, another article clarifies that a government body cannot “make systematic use of this other language either”.
This is the part that worries some people. Jolin-Barrette, speaking to CBC News last week, was firm, saying that when it comes to access to health care, nothing will change for Anglophones in the province.
“Anyone who wants to receive health services in English can receive them,” he said. “If you are an English-speaking Quebecer, or a recent immigrant, or a tourist, you can receive it in English. It was like that before. It’s like that now. And it will be like that in the future, after Law 96.”
However, Robert Leckey, dean of the Faculty of Law at McGill University, said it was unclear when the health system would be allowed to apply the exemption.
He explained that for Quebec’s religious symbols bill, Bill 21, the government specifically specified that the entire health care system was exempt from the law.
“They clearly choose not to,” he said.
Leckey said that suggests not everything will be covered by the exemption. The types of health care that would be eligible and those that would not are not specified in the bill.
He noted that if Bill 96 is shown to violate the federal Canada Health Act, which guarantees access to care, the federal law would prevail, but it’s unclear whether it would come to that in the practice.
court and justice
Like the health care system, Bill 96 includes an exemption for “natural justice,” and Quebecers have the right to seek justice in the courts in English or French. This aspect of the law will not change.
However, the ease with which it will be possible to have a judge who speaks English is another matter altogether.
Bill 96 specifies that judges will no longer need to have “a specific level of knowledge of a language other than the official language”.
If the French language and justice ministers agree, they can choose to impose a bilingualism requirement on a future judge, but only after exhausting all other options.
Thus, although the right to be heard in English is still entrenched, the reality of the frequency of having a bilingual judge in the future has been called into question.
Politicians elected to the National Assembly or appointed ministers will also not be required to know English.
Private life and workplace
Bill 96 also affects French in the workplace and gives new, sweeping powers to the Office des Langues du Québec to investigate businesses suspected of not operating in the province’s official language.
Before Bill 96, only companies with 50 or more employees had to have a plan to ensure that French was the common language of work. This included the presence of a French committee and a certificate from the government validating that the common language of the company is French.
This will now apply to businesses with as few as 25 employees.
In addition, employers will not be able to require knowledge of a language other than French when hiring or promoting employees.
The only exception is if the employer can demonstrate that another language is necessary for the work and that it “has taken all reasonable steps to avoid imposing such a requirement”.
But constitutionalists worry about what could happen when a company is suspected of not being French enough.
Dawn Montreal12:03What implications does Bill 96 have in the law?
Under Quebec’s Charter of the French Language, inspectors were already authorized to investigate such cases, including by asking to see documents. However, this power has always been limited by the Canadian Charter, which protects Canadians against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Bill 96 not only gives this power to the Quebec office of the French language (OQLF), but since it invokes the notwithstanding clause, it can derogate from the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the charter.
“Which means that ministers or inspectors can do whatever they want in terms of seizure, which goes against my conception of the rule of law,” said Frédéric Bérard, professor of constitutional law. at the University of Montreal.
“It certainly doesn’t feel good to see that it’s so easy for these inspectors to come into your house and seize whatever they want without any judicial authorization.”
Newcomers to Quebec
Bill 96 considerably affects the lives of newcomers from outside Canada to Quebec.
Under the new rules, refugees and immigrants moving to Quebec will be able to obtain services in English or another language for six months after their arrival.
After that, all government services will be exclusively in French, unless it falls under one of the “health, public safety or principles of natural justice” exceptions.
Those who offer services to newcomers will have to do so in French.
So, for example, if a government employee assisted an immigrant whose native language is Italian, even if the employee also spoke Italian, the employee would still be required to use only French.
Speaking to CBC The flow Last week, Christopher Skeete, the premier’s parliamentary assistant for relations with English-speaking Quebecers, said that after six months, newcomers are generally settled enough to begin the transition to French.
Skeete pointed out that in other parts of Canada, from day one, “you are expected to communicate in English with the Canadian government or the Ontario government.”
“What we’re saying is that you actually have the right here in Quebec for six months to express yourself in another language.”
Janet Cleveland, who researches the health and well-being of refugees and immigrants at the SHERPA University Institute in Montreal, said what is fundamental is having permission to use other languages.
“Yes, it is. In Ontario, there is no obligation to offer services in languages other than English,” she said. “But there are many, many programs that allow it.”
“What [Bill 96] fact is it forbidden to use other languages. That’s the big difference.”