Quebec Premier Francois Legault, centre, speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday, May 11, 2021, at the legislature in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Quebec Premier Francois Legault, centre, speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday, May 11, 2021, at the legislature in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Quebec tables revamp of French-language law, toughens rules for businesses, schools

MONTREAL — The Quebec government reasserted the right of Quebecers to live and work in French, as it tabled a major reform on Thursday of the province’s signature piece of language legislation, known as Bill 101.

Simon Jolin-Barrette, minister responsible for the French language, said the goal of Bill 96 is to affirm that French is the province’s only official language and the common language of the Quebec nation.

Jolin-Barrette and Premier François Legault said they introduced the legislation in response to studies indicating French is on the decline, especially in Montreal.

“French will always be vulnerable because of Quebec’s situation in North America,” Legault told reporters.

“In that sense, each generation that passes has a responsibility for the survival of our language, and now it’s our turn.”

The 100-page bill, if passed, would toughen sign laws and strengthen language requirements for businesses, governments and schools. It would create a new French-language commissioner and extend language requirements to businesses with 25 employees or more, down from 50.

Other provisions would cap enrolment at English junior colleges, grant new powers to the French-language watchdog and set new language rules for professional orders.

Among the most “fundamental” elements, Jolin-Barrette said, was that the bill would further enshrine the right to work and be served in French, including by allowing citizens to file complaints with the language watchdog against stores that don’t serve them in the official language.

“What we tabled today is about the fundamental right to be served or to be informed in French,” he said.

The law, also known as the Charter of the French Language, was adopted in 1977 by the government of René Lévesque.

While Legault described Thursday’s bill as the most significant step to protect the French language since Bill 101, he stopped short of including some of the most contentious demands from language hardliners, such as banning French students from attending English junior colleges altogether or requiring commercial signage to be only in French.

The bill creates a mechanism to strip municipalities of their bilingual status if their populations fall below a 50 per cent threshold of English speakers. But the legislation also allows municipalities to maintain their bilingual statuses if their councils vote to do so.

The premier described these “compromises” as proof the bill is reasonable and does not infringe on the rights of English speakers.

Legault said the entire bill is covered by the notwithstanding clause, which shields legislation from court challenges over violations of fundamental rights. He defended the use of the clause, which he described as a “legitimate tool” to balance individual and collective rights.

“We not only have the right, but we have the duty to use the notwithstanding clause, especially when the very foundation of our existence as a French-speaking nation is in play.”

Legault and Jolin-Barrette said the bill also proposes amending Canada’s Constitution to affirm Quebec forms a nation with French as its official language. The premier said he would send a letter to the other provincial premiers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to explain the bill.

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