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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.

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. "French will always be vulnerable because of Quebec’s situation in North America," Legault told reporters.

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

The 100-page bill, if passed, would toughen sign laws and strengthen language requirements for businesses, governments and schools. It would create a new French-language commissioner and extend language requirements to businesses with 25 employees or more, down from 50.

Government agencies would have to use French exclusively in their written and oral communications, with few exceptions, while businesses would have to ensure the "net predominance" of French on signs that include more than one language.

Other provisions would cap enrolment at English junior colleges, grant new powers to the French-language watchdog and create additional support for new immigrants and businesses who want to improve their grasp of the language.

Jolin-Barrette said a "fundamental" element of the bill would further enshrine the right to work and be served in French, including by allowing citizens to file complaints with the language watchdog against stores that don't serve them in the official language.

"What we tabled today is about the fundamental right to be served or to be informed in French," he said.

The law, also known as the Charter of the French Language, was adopted in 1977 by the government of René Lévesque.

While Legault described the bill as the most significant step to protect the French language since Bill 101, he stopped short of including some of the most contentious demands from hardliners, such as banning French students from attending English junior colleges altogether or requiring commercial signage to be only in French.

The bill creates a mechanism to strip municipalities of their bilingual status if their populations fall below a 50 per cent threshold of English speakers. But the legislation also allows municipalities to maintain their bilingual statuses if their councils vote to do so.

The premier described these "compromises" as proof the bill is reasonable and does not infringe on the rights of English speakers.

Legault said the entire bill is covered by the notwithstanding clause, which shields legislation from court challenges over violations of rights guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He defended the use of the clause, which he described as a "legitimate tool" to balance individual and collective rights. 

"We not only have the right, but we have the duty to use the notwithstanding clause, especially when the very foundation of our existence as a French-speaking nation is in play." 

Legault and Jolin-Barrette said the bill also proposes amending Canada’s Constitution to affirm Quebec forms a nation with French as its official language. Jolin-Barrette suggested Quebec has the right to unilaterally amend the section of the Constitution that outlines legislative powers of the provinces.

The premier said he would send a letter to the other premiers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to explain the bill.

The leader of the sovereigntist Parti Québécois accused Legault's government of doing the "bare minimum" to protect French and said the bill fails to take action in several crucial areas.

Paul St-Pierre Plamondon said Bill 96 takes no steps to control the entry of non-French-speaking immigrants, to bar French speakers from attending English colleges, or to ensure businesses don't unnecessarily require English as a condition of hiring.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business expressed concern the law could create extra red tape and expenses for small and medium-sized businesses, which are already struggling with COVID-19. The organization said a majority of businesses it surveyed — 56 per cent — were opposed to additional language laws, with stronger opposition in Montreal and Quebec City.  

The group, however, praised the bill for including a promise to create a body that would provide additional resources for French-language instruction to businesses and individuals.

In Ottawa, federal Official Languages Minister Melanie Joly said the government will study the bill carefully. "The situation of French in the country is special, and the government has the responsibility to protect and promote French not only outside Quebec, but within Quebec," she said.

"Our government intends to do its part while continuing to protect the right of linguistic minorities."

The bill, which contains about 200 amendments, will undergo a period of intense debate and scrutiny before it is adopted. Legault has said he'll launch a series of consultations this fall on the place of the French language in Quebec.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2021.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press