Five reasons Quebec’s language law reform is stirring controversy

MONTREAL – A protest against Quebec’s proposed overhaul of its language law drew a large crowd in Montreal on Saturday. The government says Bill 96 is a moderate reform that will improve protection for French while preserving English services, but critics say the bill will limit access to health care and justice, cost college teachers their jobs and increase red tape for small businesses.

Here are five reasons the bill, expected to be passed before the summer, is under fire:

Health care

Marlene Jennings, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, an anglophone advocacy group, says the law could prevent hundreds of thousands of English speakers from accessing health care in their language. The bill requires government agencies, including health services, to communicate with the public in French except “where health, public safety or the principles of natural justice so require.”

There are also exceptions for people who have the right to English education in Quebec, those who have previously communicated with the government in English and immigrants who have lived in the province for less than six months.

On Tuesday, Premier François Legault offered assurances that the law won’t affect access to health services in English, but Jennings is skeptical. “We already have problems, when language hasn’t been made an issue, to access quality health-care services in a timely fashion. Bill 96 is going to compound those problems,” she said in an interview.

Education

The bill would require all students at English junior colleges to take three additional courses in French. Students with English education rights — those who have a parent or sibling who was educated in English in Canada — will be allowed to take courses on the French language, but other students will have to take other subjects, such as history or biology, in French.

Adding French-language classes in English institutions will be a challenge, said Adam Bright, an English literature teacher at Dawson College in Montreal. Because the law would require students without English education rights to take a French exit exam, Bright predicts few of those students will choose English literature courses, making it more difficult for them to succeed in their other classes.

He said his union expects the changes would lead to staffing cuts in the English department. “My wife is also an English literature teacher at Dawson, so if this bill goes through, both of us are going to lose our jobs,” he said in an interview.

Red tape for businesses

The bill would expand provisions of the province’s language laws, which previously only applied to businesses with 50 or more employees, to those with 25 or more.

François Vincent, Quebec vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, estimates that complying with the law after it comes into effect will involve 20 to 50 hours of paperwork for business owners. Some businesses may have to hire consultants to help. While Vincent said it’s important to help people learn French, he doesn’t think that additional red tape will do that.

“Asking a small garage or a small restaurant in Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean that’s working 100 per cent in French to fill out paperwork so that the Office québécois de la langue française will say ‘Congratulations, you work in French,’ will not change anything,” he said in an interview.

Access to justice

The bill would require all court filings by businesses to be in French or translated into French and empower the minister of justice and the minister responsible for the French language to decide which provincial court judges need to be bilingual.

It calls for amending pieces of legislation — including Quebec’s Charter of the French Language, the Code of Civil Procedure, the Consumer Protection Act and Montreal’s city charter.

Pearl Eliadis, a Montreal human rights lawyer, said that complexity can make it hard to see the extent of the changes being proposed. “Access to justice isn’t just going to court and being able to get there, it’s also being able to understand the law,” she said.

Warrantless search and seizure

The bill would proactively invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Constitution to protect it from charter challenges.

Among the elements of the bill that would be shielded is a provision granting language inspectors the power to engage in search and seizure operations without a warrant. Eliadis said inspectors are not required to show reasonable grounds or reasonable suspicion before conducting a search related to the law.

“It’s more than a group of administrative rules designed to bolster French, because they’ve deliberately gone into each part of the act where constitutional rights can be invoked and essentially, with one sweep of the brush … disappeared an entire swath of our constitutional protections, leaving us with no remedy,” she said. “I worry the rule of law is being diminished.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2022.

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