With Raquel Fletcher in Quebec City
For those still holding out hope that Quebec will not adopt Bill 96, time is running out
Thousands of people took to the streets last Saturday in protest of the government’s controversial reform of the French language charter. For those still holding out hope that Quebec will not adopt Bill 96, time is running out.
The National Assembly adopted final amendments to the bill Thursday, including the hotly-contested modification to increase the number of French classes English CEGEP students must complete. Final speeches began with two impassioned allocutions that illustrate the very stark schism that exists between Quebecers with very different points of view on this matter. French Language Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette was first to rise in the Blue Room: “Mr. Speaker, I think rarely have I ever been so proud to stand in this house to express myself in my language, in our common language, French. It is not an accident of history or some sort of miracle that it’s possible today to debate in French in this space. It is rather the fruit of the tireless effort of a determined nation.”
This nation defied expectations as well as political, economic, legal and demographic threats to the preservation of its language, he continued. He thanked the tenacity, audacity and patience of his ancestors, a united people who systematically fought against assimilation.
“Quebec is what it is today,” the minister said emphatically. “Because, in 1837 and 1838, the women and men who came before us knew how to re-establish the status of French in places of power. It is also because, years later, others made real the ideals of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s to bestow upon Quebec a modern state, a French state.”
For the Coalition Avenir Quebec, the government is writing the next chapters of history with Bill 96. According to the minister, this reform is a modern iteration of Bill 101, adopted in 1977, and will ensure a balance between the collective rights of the Quebec nation and the rights and freedoms of the individual. The “legislative mechanisms” in the bill, the minister said, alluding to, among other things, the use of the notwithstanding clause, allows for the “justified, legitimate and necessary” protection of the French language.
At least, that is one way to look at it. The Liberal Party has decided to vote against Bill 96. Following Jolin-Barrette’s final speech, Liberal house leader André Fortin began his own by explaining why he did not see eye to eye with the minister.
“I love the French language,” he started. “It’s my mother tongue. It’s the language my mother taught me, that which her mother taught her. It’s the language my grandfather learned when he immigrated to Canada after a difficult childhood during a war … in Indonesia.”
Fortin stressed that his grandfather chose to learn French and was not forced to learn the language because the government denied him access to services in another language. The reference alludes to an article in Bill 96 which would deny access to services in English for immigrants who have resided in Quebec longer than six months, just one of the aspects of the reform the Liberal Party sees as heavy-handedness on the part of the government.
“He learnt it,” Fortin continued, “because he fell in love with a young girl from Masham. He learned the French language out of love. (And) he learned it out of respect for his neighbours, for his friends, and so he could be fully involved in the lives of his children.”
According to Fortin, Bill 96 would not foster this kind of love for French because it is too divisive. “I’m against this bill because it creates two classes of Quebeckers: historic anglophones and everybody else. I’m against this bill because it does not foster unity,” Fortin said in English.
He continued by saying it denies rights to certain Quebeckers, both anglophones and francophones. The law, if adopted as is, would allow searches to be conducted of businesses without warrants.
It would also complicate access to higher education. Fortin told the National Assembly that he, himself, chose to study at the University of Ottawa, where he completed his first year of studies in French, while improving his English to the point he could take a full course load in English by his third year.
“That only increased my pride in being Quebecois,” he said, adding that francophones who go to St. Lawrence, Heritage or Marianopolis, do not set foot in an “assimilation machine.”
“They make the choice to go there to improve their English, like a lot of my colleagues have,” he said, calling out CAQ MNA’s who also studied at English post-secondary institutions in order to improve their English. Fortin continued to speak to other concerns about how the new law would impact new immigrants, First Nations and small businesses, but the Liberal MNA was cut short because of time. Final speeches and the ultimate adoption of Bill 96 is expected to happen the week of May 23rd when the National Assembly reconvenes following the Victoria Day long weekend.