Canada Quebec seeks to change Canadian Constitution, make sweeping changes to language laws with new bill
Quebec tables revamp of French-language law, toughens rules for businesses, schools
MONTREAL — The Quebec government on Thursday reasserted the right of Quebecers to live and work in French, as it tabled a major reform to the province's signature piece of language legislation, known as Bill 101. Simon Jolin-Barrette, minister responsible for the French language, said the goal of Bill 96 is to affirm that French is the province's only official language and the common language of the Quebec nation. Jolin-Barrette and Premier François Legault said they introduced the legislation in response to studies indicating French is on the decline, especially in Montreal.
The Quebec government has tabled a bill that seeks to change the Canadian Constitution to include a specific clause reiterating the Quebec nation's French-language rights.
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 targeted at bolstering the use of French in public and workplaces after a series of studies by Quebec's French-language watchdog, the OQLF, found that French in Quebec is in decline.
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Has François Legault's government drafted legislation that preserves the linguistic consensus in Quebec, or has it endangered that consensus for the sake of narrower, partisan gain?Passed by the first Parti Québécois in 1977, it set limits, among other things, on who could attend English school in Quebec and how much English could appear on store signs (initially, none).
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.
Simon Jolin-Barrette, the province's minister responsible for the French language, tabled the bill this morning.
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Say what you want about Premier François Legault, the man is not shy about his nationalist ambitions. When he was with the Parti Québécois, Legault was what some refer to as a “caribou,” the type willing to jump into the river even as the dams were opening, to try to reach his goal on the other side. He was chomping at the bit for Quebec sovereignty and every now and again liked to remind his colleagues that he was the real deal when it came to separation. His political road to Damascus led him through a period of hiatus and then on to the formation of Coalition Avenir Québec, built largely on the ruins of the Action démocratique du Québec.
Both he and Premier François Legault have expressed concern about the decline of the French language in Quebec.
"For centuries, we've known that defending the French language is essential to the survival and development of our nation," Legault said during a news conference after the bill was tabled.
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."
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Tuesday that Pfizer will send nine-million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine in June, paving the way for 75 per cent of Canadians to get one dose of the vaccine over the summer. He said three quarters of eligible Canadians would be vaccinated by the fall.
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.
Legault said a letter has been drafted to other provinces explaining what Quebec is trying to do.
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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 reflects 'absolute minimum,' Parti Québécois says
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.
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday that Quebec can unilaterally rewrite certain sections of the Constitution to insert new provisions establishing the province as a “nation” and enshrining French as its “only” official language. © Provided by National Post A screen capture of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a May 18 press briefing where he endorsed Quebec's ability to rewrite sections of the Constitution.
"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.
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."
Colby Cosh: François Legault's constitutional trap for Trudeau is only verbiage .
“Does anyone else,” the Globe and Mail asked in an unsigned editorial leader Tuesday, “get the feeling that (Quebec premier) Legault just baited a political trap for (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau?” Ah, how satisfying it is, I thought, to find my own thoughts echoed in another newspaper. François Legault’s Bill 96, which injects a fresh bolus of steroids into Quebec’s Charter of the French Language, also contains a controversial proposal to amend the Constitution Act of 1867 with two new clauses. One declares that “Quebeckers form a nation.