OTTAWA – Quebec’s legislature passed a law on Tuesday to strengthen the primacy of the French language, restrict access to public services in English and strengthen government powers to enforce compliance, despite objections from some English-speakers of the province, indigenous peoples and members of other linguists minorities.
The provincial government says the law is needed to maintain Quebec’s status as the largest francophone enclave in America, while critics call it an attempt to create a monoculture within a proudly multicultural country. The national government says that about 85 percent of Quebec’s more than 8 million residents speak French as their primary language.
Building on the existing language law, the legislation provides that immigrants to Canada who settle in Quebec cannot speak to the government in English or other languages for more than six months after their arrival.
Most small and medium-sized businesses require government certification that they operate in French, as larger companies have done for years. And the new law will raise the bar a company must meet to justify requiring new employees to speak or read languages other than French.
Government language inspectors will be given extended powers to raid offices and search private computers and smartphones while investigating legal compliance.
Enrollment in English-language junior colleges will be capped, while new French language course requirements will be introduced at those schools. At those colleges, students whose native language is not English must also pass a French proficiency test to graduate.
While Anglophones still have the right to court hearings in their language, the new law changes the way bilingual judges are appointed, raising concerns that they will decrease in number over time.
There are also concerns, strongly rejected by the provincial government, that the law will limit the ability of doctors and other medical professionals to speak to some patients in a language other than French.
“This law is the most significant reform to the status of the French language since Bill 101 was passed in 1977,” Quebec’s prime minister François Legault said in a statement posted to Facebook. † “It is my responsibility as Prime Minister of the only government in North America representing a French-speaking majority to ensure that French remains our only official language, our common language.”
To defend the law against potential legal challenges, the Quebec government invoked a clause in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that exempts legislation from complying with the Canadian Constitution.
In recent weeks, thousands of Quebec residents from the province’s English-speaking, immigrant and indigenous communities have protested the law.
Shortly before the province’s National Assembly in Quebec City passed the bill, Julius Gray, a prominent human rights lawyer in the province, called it “the most needless use of power I’ve ever seen.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Vancouver, British Columbia, that the federal government will carefully review the law and its implementation, but avoid questions about its involvement in legal challenges.
“We continue to look very carefully at what the eventual shape of this will take and we will base our decision on what we see as the need to protect minorities across the country,” said Mr Trudeau.