Quebec seeks to change Canadian Constitution, make sweeping changes to language laws with new bill

·6 min read
Quebec seeks to change Canadian Constitution, make sweeping changes to language laws with new bill
Quebec's Minister Responsible for the French Language, Simon Jolin-Barrette, walks with Premier François Legault after presenting Bill 96.                                (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC - image credit)
Quebec's Minister Responsible for the French Language, Simon Jolin-Barrette, walks with Premier François Legault after presenting Bill 96. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC - image credit)

The Quebec government has tabled a bill to tighten the province's language laws, seeking to change the Canadian Constitution to add clauses defining Quebec as a nation with its official and common language being French.

That's one part of a sweeping new bill that, if passed, would become the most stringent law to bolster the status of the French language in Quebec since Bill 101 passed in 1977.

Much of the 100-page bill is aimed at increasing the use of French in public and workplaces after a series of studies indicated French is on the decline, particularly in Montreal.

"French will always be vulnerable because of Quebec's situation in North America,'' Premier François Legault told reporters Thursday, alongside Simon Jolin-Barrette, the province's minister responsible for the French language.

"In that sense, each generation that passes has a responsibility for the survival of our language, and now it's our turn."

The bill, called Bill 96, includes the following proposed measures:

  • Adding clauses to the Canadian Constitution, saying Quebec is a nation and that its official and common language is French.

  • Applying Bill 101 to businesses with 25-49 employees and federal workplaces.

  • Forcing all commercial signage that includes non-French-language trademarks to include a "predominant" amount of French on all sign.

  • Capping the number of students in English CEGEPs at 17.5 per cent of the student population. Quebec's Minister Responsible for the French Language Simon Jolin-Barrette says anglophones will be given admission priority for English CEGEPs.

  • Giving access to French language training for those who aren't obligated by law to go to school in French.

  • Removing a municipality's bilingual status if census data shows that English is the first language for less than 50 per cent of its population, unless the municipality decides to maintain its status by passing a resolution to keep it.

  • Creating a French Language Ministry and the position of French-language commissioner, as well as bolstering the role of the French-language watchdog, the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF).

  • Provincially appointed judges will not be required to be bilingual.

  • Requiring that all provincial communication with immigrants is in French, starting six months after they arrive in Quebec.

WATCH | Quebec seeks to change Canadian Constitution with new language bill:

Invoking the notwithstanding clause

The new bill pre-emptively invokes the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to protect it from legal challenges.

The notwithstanding clause, officially called Section 33, allows provincial or federal authorities to override certain sections of the charter for a period of five years.

"The notwithstanding clause is a legitimate tool that balances between individual rights and collective rights," Legault said.

"We have the right and we have a duty to use the notwithstanding clause when the basis of our existence as a francophone people on the American continent is at stake."

This is the second time Legault's government has used the notwithstanding clause. The CAQ government used it to shield its law barring some civil servants from wearing religious symbols, known as Bill 21, from legal challenges.

As far as changing the Constitution, the CAQ government believes other provinces will not need to be consulted because it involves amending a matter within Quebec's constitution.

WATCH |Simon Jolin-Barrette explains how Bill 96 is a balancing act:

Legault said a letter has been drafted to other provinces explaining what Quebec is trying to do.

The province will, however, need permission from Ottawa.

"We are aware of the bill tabled by the Government of Quebec and will study its contents carefully," Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages Mélanie Joly said in a statement.

"As we stated in our reform document last February, the protection and promotion of French is a priority for our government.

Bill 96 seeks to bolster the French language in Quebec by increasing its use in shops and workplaces.
Bill 96 seeks to bolster the French language in Quebec by increasing its use in shops and workplaces. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

Bill sets dangerous precedent, English-language group says

Marlene Jennings, head of the Quebec Community Groups Network, an umbrella group of Anglo groups, said the proposed law sets a dangerous precedent.

"It establishes the hierarchy of rights, creating collective French community rights that would have precedence over individual rights," she said.

Among political parties, however, the reaction was more positive. In fact, the leader of the Parti Québécois, Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, said he supports aspects of the bill, but feels it doesn't go far enough.

"Unfortunately, the CAQ gave us the absolute minimum."

The Parti Québécois has called for the Quebec college system, CEGEP, to fall under the purview of Bill 101, which would require the vast majority of students who go to elementary and high school in French to go to a French CEGEP.

Plamondon said he was disappointed that the bill didn't include that measure.

"That bill cannot reasonably change the steep decline of the French language in the Montreal region."

Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade said she was pleased to see so many of her party's proposals made it into the bill, including French-language classes, but she says there's room for improvement and hopes the government will be open to collaboration.

As for changing the Constitution, Anglade said she needs to "better understand what it truly changes."

Decline of French in Quebec

The proposed legislation comes after a number of studies from the OQLF that found the French language is in decline in the province.

A 2018 study projected that the percentage of Quebecers who speak French at home will drop from 82 per cent in 2011 to about 75 per cent in 2036.

The second study, also completed in 2018, examined language spoken in workplaces.

It found that a quarter of Montreal employees surveyed said they use French and English equally at work, and only 18.7 per cent said they speak French exclusively at work.

Quebec's language laws and identity have long been a source of tension in the province. Bill 101, adopted in 1977 by René Léveque's Parti Québécois government, was a bid to bolster and protect the French language in the province. It makes French the sole official language of the government, courts and workplaces.
Quebec's language laws and identity have long been a source of tension in the province. Bill 101, adopted in 1977 by René Léveque's Parti Québécois government, was a bid to bolster and protect the French language in the province. It makes French the sole official language of the government, courts and workplaces.(Ron Poling/The Canadian Press)

Bill 101 a 'watershed' moment

The original law, adopted in 1977 by René Léveque's Parti Québécois government, was a bid to bolster and protect the French language in Quebec.

Bill 101, or the Charter of the French Language, makes French the sole official language of the Quebec government, courts and workplaces.

It includes restrictions on the use of English on outdoor commercial signage and put restrictions on who could study in English in Quebec.

Lorraine O'Donnell, a Quebec historian who runs the Quebec English-Speaking Communities Research Network, said the original Bill 101 has had a lasting impact.

"Bill 101 is seen as a watershed moment in Quebec history," she said. "It has marked the consciousness and the perspective of English-speaking Quebec."