QUEBEC CITY – Chaos and linguistic tensions could ensue should Quebec move ahead with its new language law and try to strip cities of their bilingual status, suburban mayors warned Tuesday.
Waving resolutions from 70 of the 86 Quebec municipalities that have bilingual status and don’t want to lose it, two prominent island mayors took the Quebec government to task during the opening day of hearings into Bill 14.
“People are scared, people are very scared,” an emotional Anthony Housefather, Côte St. Luc mayor, told the committee in reference to the reaction of the anglophone community to the proposed legislation.
“We’re someone that is being treated as a problem for Quebec; a new law is required to take away the rights we thought we had when that community has made every effort to learn French.”
Later, responding to a question, Housefather went further, saying anyone who tries to strip Côte St. Luc of its status is playing with fire.
“You are going to have chaos,” Housefather said. “You are going to have opposition in the streets and you are going to lose linguistic peace.
“And I don’t think our goal here is to lose linguistic peace. The goal is for anglophones, francophones, allophones, all Quebecers to live together.”
The comments came as the National Assembly culture and education committee kicked off five weeks of hearings into the bill, a revamping of the 36-year-old Charter of the French Language.
One key clause in the bill would give the Quebec government the power to strip a municipality of its bilingual status if its population of English mother-tongue residents slips below 50 per cent.
A historic right, some municipalities today no longer meet the criteria. Otterburn Park’s anglophone population is only seven per cent, for example, yet retains its bilingual status.
Although municipalities now have the power to ask for the status – which allows a city to communicate in English as well as French with citizens – to be dropped, not one has done so in 35 years.
On her way into the hearings, Diane De Courcy, minister responsible for the charter, insisted she is in listening mode and would not comment on briefs she had not heard.
But she later ruffled a few mayoral feathers when she asked Housefather and Town of Mont Royal Mayor Philippe Roy whether the mayors had actually consulted the residents of the cities to see if they want to retain their bilingual status.
Roy snapped back that in his eight year as a municipal politician, not one resident, anglophone or francophone has ever raised the issue.
He said he believes his line represents the views of citizens.
“Nobody in our cities, francophone or anglophone, wants to re-spark these tensions and put in peril the linguistic peace which exists in Quebec,” Roy said.
“This (bill) sends a very bad signal to this community.”
Later, De Courcy denied her intention was to question the democratic legitimacy of the mayors who arrived packing considerable arguments.
Housefather and Roy were speaking on behalf of the Association of Suburban Municipalities, which groups 15 municipalities on the island of Montreal.
But they told the committee Quebec’s Union of Municipalities, and the cities of Montreal, Laval and Longueuil also oppose any change to the bilingual status rules.
But at the same time as De Courcy got a blast for going too far on municipalities, the union representing Quebec civil servants argued the other way in their appearance before the committee.
The Syndicat de la fonction publique du Québec (SFPQ) argued Bill 14 does not go far enough in beefing up the charter, saying the public sector is already suffering from “galloping bilingualism.”
Union president Lucie Martineau said she is aware of at least one case at Revenue Québec where an employee did not have their contract renewed because the employee did not speak English well enough.
She said it’s now faster, in some cases, for a citizen to “Press 9 for English,” and get through to a government agent.
The hearings continue Tuesday afternoon and evening.