UMQ warns CAQ not to disturb ‘linguistic peace’ with Bill 96

Uncertainty whether some bilingual municipalities will be keeping their status

While saying they agree generally with the CAQ government’s Bill 96 to strengthen Quebec’s French Language Charter, the Union of Quebec Municipalities is advising the provincial government to tread carefully so as not to disturb the “linguistic peace” in municipalities that have bilingual status under the current charter.

The UMQ presented its brief on Quebec’s controversial new language legislation last week to the National Assembly’s Committee on Culture and Education.

Bilingual status issue

Although neither the summary of major points nor the conclusion in the UMQ’s brief referred to the bilingual status issue, item one in their document stated that “the measures foreseen in new articles 29.2 et 29.3 appear to be satisfactory since they will allow them [municipalities] to maintain this status.

“They will thus be able, based on our of the proposed legislation, to continue to offer services in English to their Anglophone population as they do currently.” The UMQ presently has around 30 members which are recognized by Quebec as having bilingual status.

Questions Rosemère’s status

While the CAQ government pledged early on to continue allowing bilingual status in municipalities where it is warranted by at least 50 per cent English-speaking residents, there is concern the government may fine tune some elements of Bill 96’s final draft, potentially impacting currently bilingual municipalities where the number of Anglophones has fallen well below half.

Although several Committee on Culture and Education members raised small points about the UMQ’s brief, Parti Québécois MNA for Matane-Matapédia Pascal Bérubé was much harsher in his scrutiny.

“So, you find it acceptable that a municipality that has only 12 per cent Anglophones can have bilingual status?” he said, referring to the Town of Rosemère on Montreal’s North Shore.

Employment issues

UMQ president Daniel Côté (who is the mayor of Gaspé in Quebec’s Gaspésie region) said that based on the currently prevailing rules, which include recognition of an acquired right, he had no problem with it, if the municipality itself wishes to retain its bilingual status.

Bérubé continued, “If I were to suggest to you that I have here in front of me an employment offer from a municipality that has 12 per cent Anglophones and that is demanding bilingualism as one of three conditions for employment that ended last Aug. 20, do you still find that acceptable?”

Municipal autonomy

Côté answered, “From the point of view where we strive as much as possible to preserve municipal autonomy, while also respecting other linguistic requirements of course, it is municipal autonomy that gets priority, as far as I am concerned.”

Bérubé pointed a finger at a second Montreal-area municipality that has bilingual status – Town of Mount Royal.

While maintaining that TMR’s English-speaking population now stands at 18 per cent, he noted (again citing a recent employment offer) that in order to get a job with the town’s public security department, applicants are asked to be proficient in spoken and written English.

‘Unacceptable,’ said Péquiste

After Côté confirmed again that bilingual municipalities have the legal right to operate like this, Bérubé commented: “I don’t know whether it’s linguistic peace you’re out to preserve or peace in your organization.

“But as concerns us, municipalities that have less than 20 per cent [English] in their population and that want to demand knowledge of English for employment, this is an obstacle. This is unacceptable in Quebec.”

In its brief, the UMQ, representing 85 per cent of the population in municipalities across Quebec, recommended that Minister Responsible for the French Language Simon Jolin-Barrette allow the province’s towns and cities an adjustment period so that they can conform to new measures after Bill 96 is passed.

Impact on city contracts

In another recommendation, the UMQ expressed concern that new language requirements applying to municipal administration might lead to the automatic cancellation of certain major contracts awarded by municipalities should the wording of the contracts (some of which might be with suppliers outside Quebec) fall short of new French-language requirements spelled out in Bill 96.

The UMQ expressed concern that an overly rigorous Bill 96 restricting the use of English could potentially harm people who are vulnerable

In their brief, the UMQ also expressed concern that an overly rigorous language law restricting the use of English could potentially harm people who are vulnerable.

Impact on the vulnerable

“In as much as it is our wish that the entire population can communicate easily in French with their municipality, this is unfortunately not yet possible for a number of people, notably for those who have arrived more recently in Quebec or who are older,” the UMQ brief stated.

“They can run into significant difficulties in understanding certain administrative documents, leading them to call the municipality to obtain information.”

Regarding the impact of Bill 96 on administrative matters in municipalities, the UMQ noted that Section 1 of the proposed law would allow the provincial government to demand the annulment or the suspension of the execution of any outsourced contract that didn’t meet Bill 96’s more exacting French language standards.