Draft Bill 96 leaves it up to the municipal council to save Chelsea’s bilingual status.
The proposed amendment to Quebec law, the Canadian Constitution, and the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms would make it harder for English-only speaking Quebec residents to access services and information in English from their municipality.
The far-reaching bill, tabled at the Quebec National Assembly on May 13, would require bilingual municipalities to ask to keep their bilingual designations, limit the population of students in English CEGEPS, enforce the usage of French in businesses, and free-up funding for more French courses and language rule enforcement.
MRC des Collines Prefect and Chelsea Mayor Caryl Green said that she agrees with promoting and protecting the French language but, “it shouldn’t happen at the expense of services to English-speaking residents in Quebec.”
“Cutting services to these English Quebecers isn’t promoting French,” she said later in a recent phone interview.
Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) director general Sylvia Martin-Laforge said the bill “erodes the vitality” of the English community in Quebec.
“The QCGN believes that the proposed changes to the charter disregards fundamental human rights,” she said.
Martin-Laforge said that the network has lawyers looking through the 100-pages and 201 articles that make up the bill.
“We have to analyze these measures to see how they would affect English Quebecers’ everyday lives,” she said.
“I would hope he will comment and help us understand [the bill] better,” Green said about CAQ member and Gatineau MNA Robert Bussière.
She said she hasn’t yet, but will speak with him on the issue. Bussière denied The Low Down’s multiple interview requests for this story.
“There will also be public consultations this fall, reviewed article by article, a process that should take months. Mr. Bussière will then have more opportunity to discuss this [draft bill],” Bussière’s spokesperson Stéphane Mougeot wrote in an email to The Low Down.
Bilingual status at stake
Green said one main concern about the bill is a provision that would strip municipalities of their bilingual status if less than half of their population are English speakers. The bilingual status allows municipalities to offer residents services and information in English when requested.
Bilingual municipalities that fall under the 50 per cent population benchmark would have four months after Bill 96 is finalized to request to keep their bilingual status through a council resolution.
“Some English Quebecers are unilingual and they might be some of our older residents. They often feel vulnerable when they receive documents in French only, especially when it’s concerning healthcare,” Green explained.
Only two municipalities in the MRC des Collines are officially bilingual, Chelsea and Pontiac, but they both fall under 50 per cent English-speaking population. Green said that the draft bill doesn’t mention if non-bilingual municipalities with a population of under 50 per cent English speakers can also apply for bilingual status by resolution.
According to Statistics Canada’s 2016 census, 49 per cent of Chelsea residents' first language is English; 39 per cent in La Pêche; 52 per cent in Low; and 25 per cent across the MRC des Collines.
Green said that Chelsea council hasn’t had an opportunity to discuss it yet, but likely would discuss passing a resolution asking to retain its bilingual status. She added that could require public consultation.
Chelsea Ward 5 councillor Jean-Paul Leduc represents Farm Point, one of the most francophone areas of the municipality. He said that he believes a bilingual resolution will come to council and that he would support it if and when it does.
“I understand we’re trying to protect the French language, which is okay, but it can’t be to the detriment of the anglophone population,” he said, adding that about three-quarters of residents speak English during the council meeting question periods.
Not business as usual
This bill could also impact Gatineau Hills businesses with 25 to 49 employees.
“They would have to prove that they could service customers in French,” Green said.
Before, this rule only applied to businesses with 50 or more employees.
English CEGEP caps
It could also have unintended consequences on French speakers who attend English CEGEPS. The bill proposes capping the student population of English CEGEPs at 17.5 per cent of the total student population of CEGEPs across Quebec.
“Right now there’s a large number of French speakers who attend English CEGEPs. A lot of people want proficiency in both languages for their careers,” Green said.
Regional Association of West Quebecers board president Arthur Ayers said that he and the association aim to increase bilingualism.
“Francophones should speak English to be worldly and function on the international stage as a society, and anglophones should have access to resources to learn French to function in Quebec society and not undermine its French character,” he said.
Free French classes
The draft bill does announce an expansion of free French courses for non-French speakers, which Ayers, Martin-Laforge, and Green said they support.
In an interview with the Montreal Gazette, QCGN president Marlene Jennings said that the draft bill would make English speakers second class citizens.
“We certainly stand by that,” Martin-Laforge said to The Low Down regarding her statement to the Gazette. “[The bill] overrides fundamental human rights. It’s scary actually.”
Ayers had a less extreme view of the bill. He said that the decision to offer bilingual services should be left up to individual municipalities, and agrees with offering more French courses to promote bilingualism.
Time will tell what the final version of this draft bill will say and how strictly it will be followed and enforced.
"We don't want to fall into the trap of being reactionary and open old battle scars,” Ayers cautioned.