MONTREAL — Quebec's new language law will harm vulnerable English-speaking Jewish seniors and could cause a new exodus of young people from the province, a prominent Jewish organization said Monday.
B’nai Brith officials joined representatives of cultural organizations and municipal politicians to denounce the language legislation known as Bill 96, which aims to reinforce the use of French in junior colleges, workplaces and government.
B'nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn said his community shares many of the same concerns over the law as other groups, including the fact that it pre-emptively invoked the notwithstanding clause to shield it from charter challenges.
However, he said the law will have particular impacts on Quebec's centuries-old Jewish community, many of whose members speak English as a first or second language. He said he's concerned that elderly immigrants from Ukraine and the former Soviet Union will no longer be able to access services in English, and that young Jewish people will leave the province because they no longer feel welcome.
"Bill 96 is effectively holding a gun to Quebecers' heads by forcing them to utilize French in settings where accommodations were previously available for non-French-speakers," he told a news conference in Montreal.
The law, he said, violates minorities' rights to fully participate in society and will lead to a reduction in health-care services and social programs for Quebecers who don't speak French.
Premier François Legault has repeatedly sought to reassure anglophones that his government's language reform won't prevent people from seeking health care in English, and he has accused the law's critics of unnecessarily stoking fear.
But Marvin Rotrand, national director of B’nai Brith’s league for human rights, said that in his view the law is "pretty clear" that English health care won't be protected in non-emergency situations, such as doctor's appointments.
Rotrand said the new law will also make it harder to recruit rabbis from outside the province, because it tightens an exemption that has allowed them to send their children to English-language Jewish schools.
He said that previously, the children of rabbis could attend English schools for a three-year period, and the exemption could be renewed. Under the new law, he said, the period has been shortened and is non-renewable.
Rotrand, a former city councillor, said the combination of the language law and the earlier secularism bill, which restricts some public servants from wearing religious symbols, could push many of the community's younger members to leave the province.
Both Rotrand and Mostyn raised fears of a "second exodus," similar to what happened in the 1970s and '80s, when many Jews left for Toronto due to the Quebec sovereignty movement and the language law known as Bill 101.
Rotrand said Quebec's Jewish community is about 53 per cent English-speaking, many of them are elderly, and 20 per cent live below the poverty line.
"There's a certain fragility here," he said. "If the community is going to grow, it needs the support of the government of Quebec and our co-citizens."
The new law imposes stricter language rules for workplaces, tightens access to English junior colleges and limits who can receive government communication and services in languages other than French.
While there are exceptions for health, public safety and for people who have historic rights to English education, Rotrand says approximately a third of the Jewish community won’t qualify because they were born or went to school outside of Canada.
Meir Edery, who recently finished a law degree at a French-language university, said the law has made him feel unwelcome in Quebec even though he speaks French.
"Bill 96 creates a climate of fear, creates a climate of apprehension against anglophones and against myself, even if I speak French perfectly bilingually," he said.
While some groups, including the English Montreal School Board, have filed or are planning to file court challenges against the bill, Rotrand said it was "premature" to say whether B'nai Brith would do the same.
He said the group first wants to look at the final text of the bill and see if the government is willing to make small changes or work with the community on implementation.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 13, 2022.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press