Seeking English-language services from various kinds of government services in Quebec just became trickier — and the latest change isn’t going over well.
The François Legault government’s linguistic overhaul, known as Bill 96, is designed to protect and bolster the French language in the province. The goal is to guard against its decline, the government says, especially in Montreal.
After delays, more provisions of the law came into effect Thursday — one of which heavily relies on a self-imposed honour system in some cases.
Under the law, civil servants must now use French in an “exemplary” manner, which means they must speak and write exclusively in the language, except in certain cases. The new rule does not apply to the health and social services settings, according to Quebec’s language watchdog.
The latest restriction means only designated groups — such as Quebecers who have the right to English-language schooling, Indigenous people and immigrants who have been here for less than six months — can receive government services in English.
The way it is being enforced has some scratching their heads.
For example, the City of Montreal’s 311 information line now plays a message that service in English is available but callers must “attest in good faith” that they belong to an exempt group. The city’s website also says English content “is intended for the public covered by the exceptions under Bill 96” and anyone browsing the site in English is acknowledging they belong to one of the designated groups.
Eva Ludvig, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN), said the move “creates for more confusion.”
“It creates fear, anger. Am I being illegal by asking for services in English?” she said. “And I feel sorry for the government employees who have to deal with this.
“They will probably face angry citizens, confused citizens. And that’s not the purpose when you’re trying to provide services to citizens.”
Quebec’s Minister of the French Language said Friday that adjustments will be made where needed “in the coming days, in the coming weeks” and it’s important to respect the rights of those who have the right to be served in English.
“But it’s important that in Quebec, as we know, the French language is the only official language,” said Jean-Francois Roberge. “It’s the common language, it’s important that normally, usually, the government and the cities discuss with citizens in French.”
Meanwhile, some anglophones say they are already being denied services in English.
Wade Wilson, a former city councillor, has lived for 60 years in Greenfield Park in Longueuil on Montreal’s south shore. He was with his wife at a local park with their grandchildren and the splash pad wasn’t functioning.
Wilson said his wife called their local 311 hot line about the issue but she was turned away when she tried to speak to someone in English.
“They basically told her, which still shocks me today, that she didn’t have the right to be communicated with in English and in the future to go on the city website to see if she meets the criteria,” Wilson said.
Montreal city mocks Bill 96
The City of Côte Saint-Luc, which is on the Island of Montreal, clapped back at the new rule Friday. Callers who want English services from the city are met with a cheeky and cheerful message when they dial.
“Oh and by the way, you don’t need to show us your Grade 3 report cards, or your family tree going back 10 generations, and you don’t have to pinky promise anything,” the message said.
“This is the City of Côte Saint-Luc and that’s how we roll.”
Meanwhile, social media users mocked how the new provisions of Bill 96 are being applied.
One Montrealer wrote they were ineligible for English municipal services, but asked who will stop them?
“I’m not an exception to this bill but I’m looking at the (city’s) website in English! Who’s gonna stop me now??” the message reads. “The resources that go towards this nonsense baffles me!!”
Don Macpherson, a retired columnist who wrote about Quebec affairs for the Montreal Gazette for decades, also weighed in on the latest change.
“Our property tax bill is in French. We’re too old to have the certificate of eligibility for English school. We’re not Indigenous. We’re not new immigrants. So we now are legally forbidden from even peeking at our municipality’s website in English,” Macpherson wrote on Twitter.
— with files from The Canadian Press