Five reasons Quebec's language law reform has stirred controversy

·3 min read

MONTREAL — Quebec's overhaul of its language law was adopted in the legislature Tuesday. The government calls Bill 96 a moderate reform that will improve protection for French while preserving English services, but critics say the bill will limit access to health care and justice and increase red tape for small businesses.

Here are five reasons the bill has sparked opposition:

Health care

Marlene Jennings, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, an anglophone advocacy group, says the law could prevent many English speakers from accessing health care in their language. The bill requires government agencies, including health services, to communicate with the public in French except "where health, public safety or the principles of natural justice so require."

There are also exceptions for people who have the right to English education in Quebec, those who have previously communicated with the government in English and immigrants for their first six months in the province.

Premier Francois Legault has offered assurances that the law won't affect access to health services in English, but Jennings is skeptical. "We already have problems, when language hasn't been made an issue, to access quality health-care services in a timely fashion," she said in a recent interview.

Education

The bill requires students at English junior colleges to take three additional courses in French. Students with English education rights — those who have a parent or sibling who was educated in English in Canada — will be allowed to take regular French courses, but other students will have to take other subjects, such as history or biology, in French.

Adding French-language classes in English institutions will be a challenge and will reduce demand for English instructors, said Adam Bright, an English literature teacher at Dawson College in Montreal. He said his union expects the changes will lead to staffing cuts in the English department.

Red tape for businesses

The bill expands provisions of the province's language law, which previously only applied to businesses with 50 or more employees, to those with 25 or more.

François Vincent, Quebec vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, estimates that complying with the law will involve 20 to 50 hours of paperwork for business owners, and some may have to hire consultants. While Vincent said it's important to help people learn French, he doesn't think additional red tape will do that.

"Asking a small garage or a small restaurant in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean that's working 100 per cent in French to fill out paperwork so that the Office québécois de la langue française will say 'Congratulations, you work in French,' will not change anything,'' he said in an interview.

Access to justice

The bill requires all court filings by businesses to be in French or translated into French and empowers the minister of justice and the minister responsible for the French language to decide which provincial court judges need to be bilingual.

It amends multiple pieces of legislation — including Quebec's Charter of the French Language, the Code of Civil Procedure, the Consumer Protection Act and Montreal's city charter. Pearl Eliadis, a Montreal human rights lawyer, said that complexity can make it hard to see the extent of the changes in the law.

Warrantless search and seizure

The bill proactively invokes the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Constitution to protect it from charter challenges.

Among the elements of the law shielded is a provision granting language inspectors the power to search and seize without a warrant. Eliadis said inspectors are not required to show reasonable grounds or reasonable suspicion before conducting a search.

"It's more than a group of administrative rules designed to bolster French, because they've deliberately gone into each part of the act where constitutional rights can be invoked and essentially, with one sweep of the brush ... disappeared an entire swath of our constitutional protections, leaving us with no remedy," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2022.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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