The long-awaited bill clad with extensive measures to strengthen and protect the role of the French language in Quebec is finally being unveiled after months of discussions.
Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister responsible for the French language, tabled his proposed legislation that casts a wide net Thursday morning at the provincial legislature in Quebec City.
Bill 96 aims to “reinforce” French as the “common language” in the Quebec nation, he said. It also seeks to change the Canadian Constitution to ensure that French is recognized as the only official language of the province.
“The French language unifies us,” Jolin-Barrette said.
The proposed legislation entails changing parts of the landmark Charter of the French language known as Bill 101, which was first adopted in 1977 by the René Lévesque government. It overhauled the linguistic makeup of the province, though it has been widely hailed and criticized for more than 40 years.
The wide-ranging proposed measures are “diverse,” said Jolin-Barrette. The bill contains more than 200 articles that touch on the use of French in the workplace, tighten access to English CEGEPs and expanding access to language classes.
Bill 96 seeks to apply the provisions of the French language charter to small businesses, between 25 to 49 people.
The revamp also includes the creation and appointment of a French language commissioner to oversee the situation in the province. It also seeks to grant new powers to the French-language watchdog, and set new language rules for professional orders.
Under the plan, municipalities with bilingual status will see that status revoked if anglophones do not account for at least 50 per cent of the population. But the legislation also allows municipalities to maintain their bilingual statuses if their councils vote to do so.
The potential loss of that status had already prompted concerns from certain towns and cities.
The Association of Suburban municiapalites (ASM), bringing together 15 mayors of cities within the agglomeration of Montreal, said Thursday it welcomes certain provisions of the bill, namely the mechanism by which they can maintain bilingual status.
Of the 15 cities represented by the association, 13 have a bilingual status.
The group said, however, it will have to study the bill further to understand its impact on other issues such as the language of communication with businesses.
“As everyone knows, in legal matters, the devil is in the details,” said Beny Masella, ASM president and the mayor of Montreal West.
The groups is hoping to be allowed to take part in planned consultations in order “to help achieve the desired balance in respecting the rights of all our citizens.”
Bill 96 comes as the François Legault government has recently cited concerns over the decline of French in Quebec, particularly in Montreal.
Legault described the proposed legislation as reasonable and necessary. As someone who grew up in Montreal’s West Island, the premier says he understands how fragile the status of French is in the province and there is an urgency to act.
“My priority is to protect the French language,” he said.
The new bill also points to the use of the notwithstanding clause also known as the override clause or Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and is part of the Canadian Constitution. The clause allows federal, provincial or territorial governments to bypass or override certain charter rights.
Bill 96 states: “it has effect despite certain provisions of the Charter of human rights and freedoms and the Constitution Act, 1982.”
The move doesn’t come as a surprise as the premier had already hinted the government would use the notwithstanding clause to protect the bill from constitutional challenges.
Legault defended the use of the clause, which he described as a “legitimate tool” to balance individual and collective rights.
“We not only have the right, but we have the duty to use the notwithstanding clause, especially when the very foundation of our existence as a French-speaking nation is in play.”
The premier said he would send a letter to the other provincial premiers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to explain the bill.
Constitutional lawyer Julius Grey said that while he hasn’t studied every aspect of the proposed legislation, he feels it to be a “totally counterproductive bill.”
“It’s unconstitutional in many ways,” he said. “You can’t amend the Canadian Constitution in that way.”
Grey also said the use of the notwithstanding clause for the second time in row, shows a disregard for human rights when it suits Quebec’s purposes.
“It raises alarm bells,” he said. “It appears to be the new policy of Quebec that if something is very important for Quebec, then human rights aren’t important.”
Quebec used the notwithstanding clause to protect its controversial secularism law known as Bill 21, which prevents some public servants such as teachers and policer officers from wearing religious symbols while on the job.
— With files from The Canadian Press