Trudeau, 'concerned' about French in Quebec, signals he may be open to language law changes
MONTREAL -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was briefly tossed the current political football of language laws earlier this week.
And while his answer may not have been exactly what Quebec Premier François Legault wanted to hear—unlike what new Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has said—it suggested that Ottawa is considering giving French some extra legal protection within Quebec.
“I would like to highlight that I completely agree with the former premiers of Quebec and [with] Quebecers who are concerned by the decline of the French language, and I am as well,” Trudeau said.
The prime minister was asked in a Tuesday press conference about the two levels of language laws: federal and provincial.
On the federal level, there’s the Official Languages Act, the legislation meant to ensure bilingual federal services across Canada.
Bill 101, meanwhile, is provincial and is concerned with protecting and promoting French as the primary language in Quebec—including attention-getting measures like cracking down on English street signs, but also mandating that many Quebec businesses must operate in French as their day-to-day language.
The CAQ government wants that particular part of the law extended: right now it doesn’t apply to businesses located in Quebec that are regulated by Ottawa, including banks and telecom companies.
The CAQ government wants them to also be obligated to operate in French, applying Bill 101’s provisions, but it would need federal permission for this. (The province is currently working on a suite of other changes to Bill 101 that don't require federal help.)
A BILINGUAL CANADA REQUIRES A FRENCH QUEBEC: TRUDEAU
O’Toole, elected leader of his party in August, has said several times that he supports the change, including after his first one-on-one meeting with Legault in September, when he said it’s “a priority for me” to protect French.
Trudeau was much more circumspect in his comments.
He was asked by a Le Devoir reporter how he sees the difference between the two laws when it comes to the goal of protecting French in Quebec, and what the Official Languages Act would “allow you to do that Bill 101 doesn’t allow you to do.”
Trudeau answered that an update to the Official Languages Act is on the way, but he said the government is also looking at how to help Quebec.
“For Canada to remain a bilingual country, Quebec has to be first and foremost a francophone province,” he told reporters, in French.
Among other reasons, “that is why we are looking at the modernization of the Official Languages Act,” he said.
“This review is due and there will be measures to protect French everywhere, including in Quebec.”
Then, without going into more details about those plans or about Bill 101, he segued back into talking about the need to protect French across the country.
A POTENTIAL HISTORICAL DEPARTURE
One of Quebec’s top experts in language laws, lawyer Michael Bergman, said this answer sounded like “an attempt to please everybody.”
However, it also seems to contain an idea that would be a departure from the way the government normally uses the Official Languages Act, he said.
The Act, “as it exists today… does not give priority to one language over another,” Bergman said. Nor does it specifically consider Quebec—it applies to the whole country.
“What I read in [Trudeau’s] comments is that he’s maybe considering giving a priority of some kind… for the benefit for the French language and Francophone majority in Quebec.”
If so, it’s not the first time the Trudeau government has floated the idea that French may need some federal bolstering within Quebec, Bergman said.
“I have not heard a specific statement like Mr. O'Toole's from the federal Liberal government, but they seem to be hinting at that,” he said.
In late September, Melanie Joly, the minister responsible for languages, told Franco-Ontarian news outlet ONFR+ that the government is “talking about strengthening” the federal law “because we even want to go further, with a new vision…which recognizes the vulnerability of French.” She didn’t provide details.
Language laws have heated up quickly in the last six months as a political topic, but the review of the Official Languages Act was underway well before—Joly launched it in 2019, and Bergman said he testified before parliamentary and Senate committees last year for it.
IS FRENCH REALLY DECLINING?
Six former Quebec premiers recently signed an open letter supporting the CAQ government’s proposal to extend Bill 101’s provisions.
But the statistics around French usage that have worried so many are far from clear. It’s true that the proportion of people speaking French as a mother tongue has fallen, said pollster Jack Jedwab of the Association for Canadian Studies.
But that’s true for English, too, he said—the real change is an increase in immigration and in mother tongues that are neither English nor French.
Bergman said he also thinks the situation is much more complicated.
“I'm fluently bilingual and I function every day in both languages... it is my view that the French language is not in decline in Quebec,” he said.
“You can play with the numbers: the French language and its use is growing in Montreal and in Quebec. What's changing is the demographic of who's using it.”
Right now, “newcomers, new immigrants, new Canadians, allophones,” are increasingly using French, and young English-speakers also seem to have more French skills than in past generations, he said.
To him, Bill 101 seems to be filling its intended purpose, he said.
“This is more about identity politics.”
Watch the video above to see Trudeau's full answer.