Legault’s anglo liaison Christopher Skeete goes to bat for Bill 96

CAQ government’s Bill 101 update draws both praise and condemnation

Despite concerns by anglophone interest groups over the possible infringement of freedoms and rights, Sainte-Rose MNA Christopher Skeete, Premier François Legault’s liaison to Quebec’s English-speaking community, is defending Bill 96, the CAQ government’s proposed new law updating the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101).

Last week, the Legault government tabled a draft version of the legislation, whose broadest proposal would be to amend Canada’s constitution by adding clauses to define Quebec as a “nation,” with French as a single official and common language.

An historic Bill 101 update

While months of intense scrutiny and debate over the proposed legislation lie ahead, at the outset it is believed to be the most rigorous revision Bill 101 has undergone since 1977 when the Parti Québécois government, then in its first mandate, passed the Charte de la langue française.

That bill, in turn, extensively added to work that had been started by the Quebec Liberal government, when it enacted the ill-fated Bill 22 under the guidance of then-Premier Robert Bourassa, who was defeated in his own riding in the historic 1976 provincial election when the PQ was first elected.

Facing rising political pressure from Quebec nationalists, as well as academic and anecdotal evidence of the growing dominance of the English language in metropolitan areas while French declines, the Legault government seeks to raise the use of French generally, with increased emphasis on the province’s work places.

Laval at centre of debate

Laval, where spoken English is heard more and more often in public places and where the population is increasingly multilingual, has been cited in recent years by academics and demographers as an example of what successive provincial governments have been trying in varying degrees to regulate.

Census data from 2016 suggest that more than 21 per cent of people in Laval are now considered to be English-speaking, marking a significant increase since the 2011 census.

However, more than 60 per cent of the population still speaks French as their mother-tongue, and French is spoken most often at home by more than 65 per cent. Still, anglophones and allophones now account for nearly 40 per cent of Laval’s population.

Bill 96 highlights

Although still in its developmental stages, Bill 96 would include, among other things, the following measures:

  • Making Bill 101 applicable to businesses with 25-49 employees as well as all federal workplaces;
  • Making all commercial signage with non-French-language trademarks include a “predominant” amount of French;
  • Establishing the maximum number of students attending English-language CEGEPs at 17.5 per cent of the overall Quebec student population. Anglophones would also be given admission priority into English CEGEPs;
  • For the first time, French language training would be provided by Quebec to residents who aren’t already obliged by Bill 101 to go to school in French;
  • A municipality’s bilingual status would be revoked if census data showed that English is the first language for less than 50 per cent of the population, unless the municipality decided to maintain its status by passing a resolution to conserve it;
  • All provincial communications with immigrants would be in French, starting six months after their arrival.

Skeete defends Bill 96

Defending Bill 96 on CJAD last week, Christopher Skeete said, “I think if you look at what’s being proposed, you see a deliberate attempt to show extreme deference to the English community. I’m talking about solving a historical problem, which has been the growing inability of English-speaking Quebecers to access the CEGEP system. We’re fixing that problem.”

He also suggested that the CAQ government is showing “recognition that municipal autonomy needs to be used in order to protect the bilingual status of cities.”

And he said English-speaking Quebecers are being granted “the right to learn French in order to be successful in Quebec, which solves a myriad of issues for the English-speaking community, notably accessing the civil service, getting better-paying jobs, fixing other types of access to the wider Quebec society. There are lot of good things in there for the English-speaking community.”

Demers pleased with legislation

Laval mayor Marc Demers issued a statement last week which praised overall the CAQ government’s language law reform efforts. “There can be no doubt that the retreat of French in the greater metropolitan region is an issue that merits being addressed,” Demers said, adding that he was satisfied overall with the thoughts and ideas brought forth by French Language Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette.

Demers praised especially the following elements in government’s draft Bill 96:

  • French being made Quebec’s sole official and common language;
  • Raising the status of French in Quebec at all levels of society;
  • Allowing the state to serve as and to set an example in the use of French;
  • Establishing a linguistic governance that manages to be objective but strong.

Regarding elements of Bill 96 affecting Laval’s English-speaking community, Demers suggested the proposed new legislation is flexible enough to meet needs without interference from Quebec. “The draft law respects municipal autonomy,” he said. “As we understand it, the City of Laval will be able to continue offering services to the anglophone community.”

‘Overrides rights,’ QCGN suggests

The Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) wasn’t nearly as receptive to Bill 96.

“The Quebec Community Groups Network deeply regrets that proposed changes to the Charter of the French Language override fundamental human rights and will erode the vitality of our English-speaking minority community,” the Montreal-based group said in a statement.

“The proposed legislative changes are more far-reaching than we could have ever imagined,” QCGN president Marlene Jennings said, adding that the bill, “which invokes the notwithstanding clause throughout, puts the collective rights of French-speaking Quebec ahead of the fundamental rights and freedoms of individual Quebecers.”

Jennings said that at a recent meeting by the QCGN with Jolin-Barrette, “the government had assured us its objective is not to take away or diminish the rights of English-speaking Quebecers, divide the two language groups, or act to the detriment of the institutions of the English-speaking community. Unfortunately, this bill will have the opposite effect.”

‘Unconstitutional,’ says Jennings

The QCGN said it was “taken aback” that the government is proposing to unilaterally amend the Canadian Constitution to recognize the linguistic specificity of the Quebec nation. “That’s a constitutional curveball we certainly were not expecting,” said Jennings. “This is a fundamental shift in the Canada/Quebec relationship and one we believe is unconstitutional.”

‘I think if you look at what’s being proposed, you see a deliberate attempt to show extreme deference to the English community,’ said Sainte-Rose MNA Christopher Skeete

“This is a closed-in, narrow vison of a Quebec that is increasingly distancing itself from the rest of Canada,” she added. “Stricter regulations for commercial signs and the imposition of the notwithstanding clause to supersede the rights and freedoms of Quebecers represents a huge step backward that will create unnecessary conflict and division.”

The QCGN, which represents up to 60 stake holding groups and organizations across Quebec, said it was also concerned about the plan to extend the application of Bill 101 to businesses with between 25 and 49 employees and the amount of red tape created by a fresh multitude of complicated rules and regulations.

Bad for business, QCGN says

“This bureaucratization will make it more difficult for small businesses to operate and flourish in Quebec, within Canada, and to build strong links with North America and the world,” Jennings said.

“The government’s priorities are ill thought out. Many businesses are struggling to stay afloat and the pandemic has had a devastating impact on small businesses in every region of this province. This is certainly not the time to make the lives of these hard-working merchants and businesspeople even more difficult.”

However, Jennings said the QCGN “is certainly pleased that the government is widening access to French language training – a longstanding demand of our community, particularly from our youth.” She called it “a positive and welcome step that will allow more English-speaking Quebecers to find gainful employment and remain in Quebec.”