Linguistic battle expected to get more and more radical as use of French language declines
Quebec’s radical proposed language legislation, Bill 96, which was tabled last week, was predicted by a demographer who published an analysis in January that highlights the negative effects of immigration on French language in the province.
“My results demonstrate that ethnic French-Canadians are declining, and demographer Marc Termote has pointed out on multiple occasions that the (use of the) French language is declining in Montreal,” wrote Charles Gaudreault, in an email to the Financial Post. “The French-Canadians who have embraced civic nationalism will probably charge into a linguistic battle as their ethnic group declines. We may suspect that they will be more and more radical in this linguistic battle as their share of the population declines, both ethnically and linguistically.”
Fears over a declining French-Canadian population underpins the identity politics behind Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans religious symbols in the public service. It also has the potential to undermine the federal government’s new, and economically unjustifiable, plan to boost immigration to 400,000 immigrants annually for the next three years and presumably beyond.
Ironically, Quebec already has control over immigration to the province and favours French-language speakers. The province also requires immigrant children to attend French-language schools. And yet, the shift appears unrelenting, as immigrants, as well as some francophones, continue to opt for English.
Bill 96 aims to stop this slide toward English. It would require retailers to deal with customers predominantly in French, force immigrants to interact with the government in French only after six months in the country and restrict the growing proportion of francophone Quebecers who are switching to English-language CEGEPs for their post-secondary education. (In 2017, a Quebec auditor general’s report estimated that only one-third of new arrivals were signing up for French-language courses and 90 per cent of graduates were unable to operate in French.)
For businesses, new signage rules would require them to display French text on all commercial signs more prominently than English. French would also be required to be used in workplaces with 25 employees or more, down from the previous 50. The bill also proposes to extend the French rules to cover federally chartered corporations, such as banks and telecommunication companies.
Likewise, proposed changes to the French charter could end up stripping many municipalities of their bilingual status, according to a report in the Montreal Gazette.
The new law also includes a potentially controversial amendment to the Canadian Constitution that would recognize Quebec as a nation and French as its only official and common language. (In 2006, the House of Commons declared Quebec a nation under a motion tabled by then-prime minister Stephen Harper, but it was not part of the Constitution.)
Premier François Legault said the notwithstanding clause will be invoked to prevent federal objections. Some experts have said that this isn’t necessary, but the premier said it’s there because Quebec has “the right and the duty to use the clause, especially when the foundation of our existence as a people in America is at stake.”