Quebec announces plans to strengthen French language laws
MONTREAL -- Quebec's Minister Responsible for the French Language, Simon Jolin-Barrette, announced on Tuesday a plan to table a bill aimed at strengthening French in the province.
"Quebec was born in French, and it will stay French," Jolin-Barrette said at a news conference on Tuesday.
Without offering specifics, Jolin-Barrette said the objective of the bill will be to "protect, value and promote the French language."
The news comes after complaints from Quebecers who say they couldn't receive services in French in some sectors, Jolin-Barrette said.
He added that he spent the past year consulting with Quebecers from various backgrounds to get a sense of their concerns in regards to the French language in Quebec, as well as their suggestions on how to protect it.
Quebec's office of the French language, the enforcement arm of Bill 101, reported in 2019 that on the island of Montreal, the percentage of people who have French as a mother tongue declined from 52.1 per cent to 46.1 per cent between 1996 and 2016.
The bill will be presented at the National Assembly's next parliamentary session, Jolin-Barrette said.
Asked about the bonjour-hi debate, the contentious question of whether stores and restaurants should address clientele in both languages or strictly in French, Jolin-Barrette said French-speaking Quebecers have a right to be greeted in French but that English-speaking Quebecers can be served in English, too.
"What I'm doing right now (with) protecting French is not against English (people) or English services given to the English community," he said, adding that if an English speaker calls the Quebec government for services, they will maintain their right to be served in English.
Jolin-Barrette added that he wanted to make it clear overall that protecting the French language in Quebec won't come at the expense of services and institutions for the English-speaking population.
"That's not the goal, it will never be the goal," he said.
"In North America, Quebec is a distinct society. The English-speaking community is part of Quebec, they build Quebec with all the Quebecers. I will always respect the institution of the English community."
Jolin-Barrette, who is also the justice minister, said he hasn't decided whether the expanded law will apply to English-language CEGEPs. The province restricts access to English-language elementary and high schools for francophones, but those rules don't apply to CEGEPs or universities.
Later in the day, Premier Francois Legault said expanding Bill 101 to CEGEPs isn't part of the government's plan -- for now. Legault said restricting access to those institutions "is part of the discussions."
Jolin-Barrette also suggested he wasn't ready to force companies with fewer than 50 employees to conduct their operations in French -- as is required for larger companies. He said he didn't want to increase the bureaucratic burden of small and medium-sized businesses.
This move will not impact Indigenous communities in Quebec when it comes to their efforts to protect and promote their own languages, Jolin-Barrette added.
"Speaking multiple languages is a good thing," he said. "However, the language that unites us in Quebec is French, and in the collective plan, we must protect (it)."
SUPPORT FROM OPPOSITION
If opponents of tighter language restrictions were looking for support from Quebec's opposition parties, they will be disappointed. All opposition parties have indicated that they, too, feel that Bill 101 needs an overhaul.
“We want him to put something strong on the table,” said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois of Quebec Solidaire.
“We think businesses that fall under federal jurisdiction should be subject to Bill 101. It's important.”
Liberal leader Dominique Anglade said she's aware her voter base includes the English community, which may be against the changes, but also said laws protecting the French language need to be strengthened.
“I will stand up [for] issues relating to all the communities. One of them is this one, the other one is the French language, and I will do both,” she said.
‘VERY LITTLE THAT WAS NEW’
English speakers and those who represent them reacted to the announcement by saying it was "quite vague," with "very little that was new" -- and some said that for other reasons, the timing is not ideal.
"Some places, they don’t speak French, it’s obvious," said one English speaker shopping downtown on Tuesday.
"But I think currently people are having this crisis -- they don’t need to add another problem on top of everything."
"There’s people dying, there’s people struggling right now," another said. "This is not a priority."
Kevin Shaar, who is the vice-president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, an umbrella group for English organizations in the province, also said the timing is strange.
"Do we really need to go back to wedge politics at this point in time?" Shaar said. "It seems completely counterintuitive unless you’re trying to distract from something else."
Shaar said he doesn't see why the government is opening up the matter from a practical perspective, either.
“When there is a consensus on certain issues, then why are we messing with something that is so divisive?” he said.
“With the current Charter of the French Language, there’s a balance that’s been achieved over years and years and years that’s been tested by the courts, that has survived successive governments. The English community has learned to live with it, it’s adapted."
The law already "appears to have all the tools necessary to resolve what problems might be," he said.
In the meantime, a group that promotes and protects the French language in the province said the government waited too long to reinforce Bill 101.
“In Montreal it’s problematic,” said Marie-Anne Alepin of the Societe Saint-Jean Baptiste, adding that new measures are needed to protect the French language.
-- With files from The Canadian Press and CTV News Montreal's Stephane Giroux and Angela Mackenzie