Montreal mayoral candidate Balarama Holness says it's time to reopen the debate on the city's language status.
Montreal is one of the largest francophone cities in the world — about 65 per cent describe French as their mother tongue.
Holness, leader of Mouvement Montréal, is proposing a one-year public consultation on the use of the English and French languages in public and private institutions, followed by a referendum on the linguistic status of Montreal.
Should a referendum be held and the city's status changed, Holness says he would expect the provincial government to respect the vote and approve a modification to the city's charter, which identifies Montreal as a French-speaking city in the first article.
If that happens, Quebec's language law, known as Bill 101, or any changes made under the Coalition Avenir Québec government with Bill 96 would not affect Montreal.
Under the current law, bilingual status is given only to those 84 municipalities with 51 per cent or more of the population who speak English as a first language.
Regardless, Holness says it should be up to the people to decide.
"The National Assembly will not determine the character and nature of the city of Montreal," he said Tuesday.
If Montrealers want to keep the city's current status, there would be no change, he said.
On the other hand, if they decided that "English and French will be the official languages here in Montreal, then Bill 96 will not uphold and many other things will change in the city," he said.
2 leading candidates shoot down proposal
The proposal drew immediate fire from his two main opponents, Valérie Plante and Denis Coderre, who have both voiced support of Premier François Legault's plan to beef up the province's language law with Bill 96.
"I'm against it and I think it's too divisive," said Coderre of Holness's proposal on Tuesday. "I think Montreal is a francophone metropolis."
Coderre said a mayor's role is to unite, not divide, people and he objects to a referendum on the issue.
Plante, the city's current mayor, says there's no reason to question the French-speaking status of Montreal.
Reopening the debate is a way to try put the two-linguistic communities in opposition, Plante said, and "I am very uncomfortable with this proposal."
Even Marc-Antoine Desjardins, who recently merged his party, Ralliement pour Montréal, with Mouvement Montréal, distanced himself from Holness on Tuesday.
"I am an ardent defender of keeping the francophone character of Montreal," he said, noting his party would aim to maintain the status quo.
WATCH | Why Balarama Holness says he wants to open up the language debate:
Holness may be looking to set himself apart
Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, says Holness is working to set himself apart from the top two candidates — and get people talking about him.
Mouvement Montréal is running in all of Montreal's 19 boroughs with 74 candidates in all. Coderre's Ensemble Montréal has 98 candidates and Plante's Projet Montréal has 103.
Béland says language isn't really an issue at the municipal level, but there is some anxiety about Bill 96 among the city's English-speaking voters.
That means Holness's announcement might give his party a boost in certain boroughs, he said, and even perhaps drive a wedge between the two leading candidates and English-speaking Montrealers.
On the flip side, he said, Holness may have put his credibility as a viable candidate in jeopardy when he joined forces with Desjardins — the leader of a party diametrically opposed to him on certain issues.