The federal government is taking a wait-and-see approach to Bill 96 and will only intervene when they have proof that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been compromised.
Pontiac Liberal MP Sophie Chatel told the Low Down that while she has heard “a lot” of complaints from her English-speaking constituents on the effects of Bill 96, her government will “monitor” how Quebec implements the beefed-up language bill before stepping in.
“A lot of it will also depend on how the Quebec government implements [the bill] and the power it gives itself,” said Chatel. “We will monitor very closely the application of the legislation. There is a lot of questions on how they will implement this. What the government has expressed, like Bill 21, if the Charter of Rights is compromised in the individual rights of minority groups in the Pontiac, then we will intervene.”
Bill 21 is the province’s secular law and prohibits people in positions of authority, including teachers, police officers and judges, from wearing religious symbols in the workplace.
Bill 96 was adopted into the National Assembly of Quebec in late May and received Royal Assent in early June. The bill amends the province’s Charter of the French language, Bill 101, and gives the government sweeping powers over education and health and immigration, among other areas. The bill most notably prohibits non-historic anglophones – those or their parents who did not go to school in English in Canada – from receiving services in English. The bill will also force English CEGEP students to take five French language courses to graduate and places caps on enrollment in upcoming school years. Bill 96 also gives the government the power – without a warrant – to seize company laptops, cellphones, internal documents and other sensitive information from businesses with 25 or more employees to ensure all communications are happening in French.
Chatel noted that her party recognizes the importance of protecting French in Canada. Chatel is French-speaking, but her husband immigrated to Canada from Michigan in early 2000 and didn’t speak French when he arrived. He did learn the language, but Chatel said it was challenging for him to access training. Chatel said she worries about immigrants and the clause in Bill 96 that will require them to learn French within six months. After that period, immigrants won’t have access to services in any language.
“We need to ensure we give all the tools for our immigrants and refugees to learn French. Six months is worrisome, so I wonder whether that is realistic,” added Chatel.
“From my own experience with my husband — six months is a challenge. You really need to have the tools at your disposal.”
Immigrant displacement organization Wakefield for Refugees said that six months can come and go before a refugee is even enrolled in a French class in Quebec. The organization has helped settle several Syrian families in the Hills and is actively bringing in more and more Ukrainians.
“There is a long waiting list for government-sponsored language classes,” said Erin Krekoski, referring to the organization's challenges in enrolling Syrian refugees in French courses. “[One Syrian family] had to wait pretty much six months before they could even get into a French class.
The Low Down requested current wait times from the CAQ government, but they didn’t respond by press time.
Krekoski said the six-month window for refugees to learn French is “worrisome,” but what’s even more distressing is the lack of clarity around whether or not Ukrainian refugees will have to learn French or not. The organization has settled five Ukrainian families in the Gatineau Hills, but they aren’t considered permanent residents and there hasn’t been any clear messaging from the feds.
If these immigrants are subject to Bill 96’s provisions, many will be faced with learning two languages if they want to remain in Quebec.
“All of the people that have come to Canada that we have helped have had zero French and some to no English,” said Krekoski. “Based on that alone, if someone needs to access critical services, I think they should be able to do it in any language possible.”