“Too much stick, not enough carrot”: Panelists express concerns about Bill 96

By Ruby Irene Pratka – Local Journalism Initiative

The Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) explored Bill 96 from all angles at a webinar on the evening of Jan. 20.

The wide-ranging, controversial legislation was first tabled in May 2021. Although it technically died on the order paper when Premier François Legault prorogued the National Assembly in October, the government has asserted its intention to pass it this year.

The law has potentially wide-ranging impacts on several spheres of Quebec society, including education (capping the percentage of CEGEP students that attend English-language schools and subjecting anglophone students to the same French exit exam as francophones), business (extending Bill 101 provisions to businesses of 25-49 employees and Crown corporations), immigration (expanding access to francization courses and communicating in French only with immigrants who have been in the province longer than six months) and justice (granting wider search powers to inspectors from the Office québécoise de la langue française). It also makes use of the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The QCGN has repeatedly spoken out against the bill, asserting that its use of the notwithstanding clause creates a “rights-free zone” in the province.

At the Jan. 20 panel, Senator Joan Fraser, former senator and La Presse editorialist André Pratte and left-wing independent journalist Christopher Curtis of The Rover, none of whom are directly affiliated with the QCGN, shared their reflections on the proposed legislation.

Curtis emphasized the necessity of acknowledging that French is the common language of Quebec and that it is in a precarious position in North America. However, he said he didn’t believe the bill could seriously address the vitality of French without infringing on citizens’ rights.

“Like a lot of things that this government does, it strikes me as more political than anything else,” he said.  “There’s a lot of stick and not a lot of carrot, whether it’s warrantless searches of people’s workplaces… or whether it’s fines that could put a business out of business.”

“Maybe I’m a dreamer, but I’d like to see something more like a summit on the future of French in Canada…where you would encourage people to live in French rather than introducing punitive measures,” said Curtis, an anglophone who rose to provincewide prominence with his dispatches from the Parti Québecois campaign bus in 2018. “If we focus on incentivizing rather than punishing, then we’re working toward a solution.” He raised concerns about potential implications of the bill for the health care and justice systems, and its future effect on elderly or vulnerable English speakers.

“This entire conversation is one colonial power speaking to another, and none of it involves protecting Indigenous languages,” Curtis added.

Pratte acknowledged that as a francophone public figure with deep roots in the province who openly opposed Bill 96 and Bill 21, he was in the minority. “The French language does need legislative protection in Quebec…and a few of the measures in Bill 96 could be helpful in that regard,” he said. “What I find the most worrisome is that it represents the most wide-ranging [use of the] notwithstanding clause in Quebec history.” The clause “ties the court’s hands” in the vast majority of potential court challenges,” he added. Bills 21 and 96 “show the real risks of the notwithstanding clause when the majority of the population of the province is either indifferent to the suppression of minority rights or even worse, in favour of it,” he said. “The door is then open to legal discrimination against minorities.”

He also observes that the bill, which would restrict access to English-language CEGEPs and discourage English as a hiring requirement, would “lead to fewer Quebecers learning English” and have consequences for Quebec’s place in the global economy.

“The huge majority of [this bill] will not change one iota the situation of French in Quebec, but will infringe…not only anglophones’ fundamental rights, but those of all Quebecers,” he concluded.

Curtis called on the community to “mobilize, organize and enlist allies” in the francophone community  to continue raising questions about the bill. “Young Quebecers are not afraid of the English language. They want to learn it because they…want to be able to work anywhere in the world. And the same for religious signs. They’ve been to school with people from all sorts of cultures and religions, and they have…an experience that is so different from the ones that their parents and especially their grandparents had. Organizing and finding allies is the only way to make someone pay a political price for this, which seems to be the only thing the government understands.”

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