#NewsMatters: The National Assembly Report

Clause-by-clause study of language law quickly gets controversial

Raquel Fletcher in Quebec City

As the adage goes, the devil is in the details and Bill 96, the government’s proposed French language reform legislation has a lot of details. The National Assembly committee studying the bill is in the clause-by-clause stage, a meticulous and methodic process of analyzing its 201 articles.

Quebec City correspondent for Global Raquel Fletcher.

It didn’t take long for things to get controversial.

During its committee work Thursday afternoon, Liberal MNA David Birnbaum called out French Language Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette about an article concerning temporary foreign workers.

“I have to learn how to say, ‘red herring’ in French because there are 500 kilograms of it in this room,” he said.

Under the current law, temporary foreign workers can apply for an exemption to Bill 101 to send their kids to school in English. Bill 96 aims to limit that exemption to three years. JolinBarrette said this modification would provide an incentive to workers who suspect they might stay longer or even apply to become permanent residents to send their kids to school in French from the beginning.

The minister argued it would facilitate their integration faster. It also closes a loophole in the law by which immigrants could theoretically use the temporary worker route instead of applying through the regular immigration process to strategically bypass Bill 101. Children who are granted exemptions could potentially gain an acquired right to be able to send their own children and grandchildren to English school.

Birnbaum said framing the issue this way is offensive because it paints immigrants as being antagonistic towards the protection of the French language.

“I have to say, if I was currently a temporary worker and I heard this, I would be pretty insulted by these allusions that suggest I am somehow hostile to French in Quebec or that I’m part of some spontaneous army that has descended on Quebec in order to anglicize this corner of North America,” he said in committee.

The red herring, he said, is that the number of people taking advantage of this theoretical loophole is probably marginal, although the minister failed to provide numbers. “This discussion on temporary stays in Quebec is emblematic of the key issues before us in trying to find positive and inclusive ways to promote the French language,” Birnbaum said in a phone interview.

The discussion so far has not been positive, nor inclusive, he said, pointing out that this reform could seriously hurt the Quebec economy.

Skilled workers may move elsewhere

The Bill 101 exemption for temporary stays encourages highly skilled workers, including academics and scientists to work in Quebec because they know they will be able to send their kids to school in English. In exchange, the province benefits from their expertise. However, without the possibility to renew the exemption, this highly skilled workforce may choose to move elsewhere.

The Liberal Party is proposing an amendment to allow for one renewal, so children of temporary workers could attend English school for a maximum of six years. However, Jolin-Barrette indicated he would not adopt this amendment. The article was included “because there’s a hole in the law,” he said.

Then switching to English, he asked Birnbaum directly, “There’s a breach in the law. You don’t want to fix it? You want to let it happen?”

In a cheeky retort, Birnbaum once again asked the minister to quantify the size of this supposed hole. “Is it a pothole or is it the Quebec tunnel?” he asked, referring to the government’s controversial third link project for Quebec City.

The committee has been studying this bill for about 60 hours. It is a quarter of the way through the legislation. It has already adopted an article which gives immigrants a six-month window to learn French. After that, the public service must only communicate in French in written correspondence with immigrants. Debate around even more controversial aspects of Bill 96 is yet to come, including special provisions for the Office québécois de la langue française to conduct searches and seizures.