Quebec’s overhaul of its strict French law under the microscope during hearings on Bill 96 – Montreal
Quebec’s proposed overhaul of its charter of the French language is under scrutiny during legislative hearings, as participants this week raised concerns about the effect of the bill on anglophones and the independence of the judiciary .
Introduced in May, Bill 96 is Quebec’s plan to improve Bill 101, the province’s French language charter first adopted in 1977 by the government of René Lévesque.
The government of Prime Minister François Legault has described its reform proposal as a reasonable response to studies by the French-language office in Quebec which indicate that French is in decline in the province, particularly in Montreal.
“The time has come to act with force,” said Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister responsible for the French language, at the start of the hearing.
The bill is still making its way through the legislative process, but has gained national attention during the English-language federal election debate. Moderator Shachi Kurl described Law 96 as one of two “discriminatory” laws in Quebec, the other being Law 21, which prohibits some public sector workers from wearing religious symbols at work.
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Bill 96 aims to unilaterally amend the Canadian Constitution to affirm Quebec as a nation and French as its official language. It also includes 200 amendments aimed at strengthening the status of French. They include a call for stricter sign laws, more language requirements for businesses, and less access to junior English-language colleges.
The Legault government invoked the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Constitution to protect the bill from Charter challenges.
The Quebec Community Groups Network, an umbrella organization representing organizations in the English-speaking community, asked the Legault government to withdraw the bill or at least to withdraw the notwithstanding clause.
“Bill 96 proposes the most important overhaul of Quebec’s legal order since the Quiet Revolution,” said Marlene Jennings, general manager of the network, during the hearings. “A change of this magnitude requires serious discussions and debates within Quebec society.
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Jolin-Barrette said English-speaking institutions would be respected.
“I want to reassure the English-speaking community that this bill is for inclusion, to include all Quebecers in Quebec, that everyone is part of society,” he declared. “We are not taking any rights away from anyone in this bill. “
The network agreed that protecting the French language is important, but they disagreed that French was in decline in the province. The group also called on the government to request a reference to the Quebec Court of Appeal on the constitutionality and the meaning of the constitutional amendment.
The Quebec Bar Association said during hearings that it was concerned that the bill would undermine the independence of the judiciary because it removes the obligation for judges in the province to be bilingual.
The association also challenged an article in the bill according to which the French version of the laws would take precedence over the English translations, which it said could constitute a violation of the Constitution. Article 133 of the Constitution stipulates that federal and Quebec laws must be enacted in both languages, and this article does not fall under the notwithstanding clause.
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For its part, the Conseil de patronat, which represents employers in Quebec, has raised concerns about the impact of the bill on small businesses. Bill 96 requires businesses with 25 or more employees – instead of 50 employees – to operate in French, which creates more paperwork for small businesses.
And part of the bill would limit the ability of companies to require candidates to speak a language other than French, which the employers’ council said ignores the impact on companies doing business. in the rest of Canada or abroad.
The responsibility lies with the companies themselves, which must demonstrate that they have taken “all reasonable means” to avoid requiring knowledge of a language other than French.
“This measure could also have the perverse effect of limiting the hiring of certain candidates, especially among marginalized populations”, specifies the council. “In a globalized economy like ours, speaking more than one language has added value and should not be penalized.
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Another point of contention is access to English-speaking junior colleges, known as cégeps. Hard-language proponents, such as the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, argue that access to these schools should be strictly limited and fall under the charter, which currently prohibits most Francophones and immigrants from attending elementary schools. and English-speaking secondary schools.
The government has chosen a moderate approach, refusing to extend the charter to junior colleges but introducing caps on the number of students who can attend.
Guy Rocher, scholar and sociologist and architect of Bill 101, said during hearings that the government made a mistake in 1977 by not including junior colleges in the original language law. Rocher, now 97, suggested the government of the day had no idea how important the junior college system would be.
“Things have changed, the context has changed,” Rocher said. “If I’m here, it’s because I’m worried about the future of the French language. At my age, I have the right to worry about the future.
Consultations continue until October 7.
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