QUEBEC CITY -- Quebec Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette called for calm Tuesday morning in his remarks before the start of consultations on the province's new proposed language law, Bill 96.

He said he had heard some "nonsense" in recent weeks about the proposed legislation, which has reignited the language debate in Quebec.

Without naming her, one can assume he was referring to lawyer Anne-France Goldwater, who last week associated Bill 96 with the Gestapo of the Nazi regime.

"The time has come to take strong action in Quebec, to strengthen the status of French and halt its decline, particularly in Montreal," Jolin-Barrette said.

"Studies show that the French language is in decline," he said. "Hence the importance of strengthening the legislative framework for its protection."

The Office de la langue française (OQLF) said that there were 4,326 complaints about language in 2020-2021, which is up 18 per cent from 2019-2020 and 54 per cent more than in 2018-2019. Most of the complaints, the OQLF said on Tuesday, are about language on web sites and in customer service or retail.

The hybrid consultations, lasting until Oct. 7, will take place either by videoconference or in person.

They will allow testimony from about 50 people and organizations that are interested in expressing their views on the place of French in Quebec and to suggest the legislative framework required to ensure its future, the governing party has said.

This is one of the most significant consultations conducted by Legault's CAQ government during its mandate.

Liberal language critic Hélène David said in a news scrum that the Legault government is trying to gag the opposition by forcing Bill 96 through.

She asked Jolin-Barrette to commit to not invoke closure on this bill, bringing a premature end to debate.

She said that given the scope and strategic importance of the bill, it is unrealistic to expect it to pass this fall.

In the past, the Legault government has on four occasions used the legislative right to invoke closure on a debate -- a mechanism that's supposed to be an exceptional measure.

Bill 96 is an ambitious project to upgrade Bill 101 (the Charter of the French Language) adopted in 1977 by René Lévesque's Parti Quebecois government. It aims to review the status of French in Quebec by intervening in several areas.

AREAS OF CONTROVERSY

It, like Bill 21 on secularism, will also undoubtedly be a piece of legislation designed to confirm the strong nationalist identity and character of the CAQ government.

The issue of access to English-language CEGEPs is one of the points under consideration and one that has inflamed passions already.

The government has chosen a moderate approach in this area by not extending the application of Bill 101 to CEGEPs.

The government's decision to apply the notwithstanding clause to its entire bill from the outset, in order to shield it from any Charter of Rights challenge, is also likely to make waves.

The purpose of Bill 96 is to ensure that the government sets an example in the use and promotion of French. In particular, it recognizes the right to learn French, and, in the workplace, it is set to force businesses with between 25 and 49 employees to operate in French, to ensure that their staff can work in French.

The consultation was launched Tuesday morning by the OQLF, which is responsible for implementing the law. Under it, the office will also see its powers extended.

Several experts were invited to comment on the government's choice to enshrine in the Canadian Constitution the fact that Quebecers form a nation and that French is the only official language of Quebec and the common language of that nation.

Quebec also plans to create a Ministry of the French Language.

Bill 96 is an ambitious document with some 200 articles.

"SWEEPING USE OF HUMAN-RIGHTS OVERRIDES"

The Quebec Community Groups Network, which advocates for English-language community organizations, will meet with the committee on Sept. 28. 

The group has issued concern about the bill's effect on Quebec in general, but in particular on its English minority groups. 

"Bill 96 calls for the most sweeping use of human rights overrides in Quebec’s history, ousting the application of both the Quebec Charter and the Canadian Charter," a release from the QCGN reads.

"It effectively creates a Charter-free zone with respect to a wide range of interactions between individuals and the state in Quebec."

The group is concerned that the bill seeks to "redefine the social contract" between Quebecers, as well as the relationship between Quebec and Canada, it says.

"This is of concern to all Quebecers and deserves to be fully debated and discussed. In considering the legislation it is critical that the diverse voices of Quebec are heard and taken into account," the QCGN said.

The QCGN held its own hearings on the bill from Sept. 9 to 17, which is where Goldwater made her statements comparing the bill to the Gestapo.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Sept. 21, 2021. 

-- With reporting from CTV Montreal