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Quebec English speakers brace as major provisions of language law come into effect

In Lennoxville, a former town turned borough of Sherbrooke in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, there is no official celebration for Canada Day nor for Fête Nationale, also known as St-Jean-Baptiste Day. 

Decades ago, when the bilingual enclave was still a town, it came up with an alternative to avoid alienating French or English speakers: Friendship Day, or Journée de l’amitié. 

On the second Saturday of nearly every June since, practically everything in the community of 5,500 people revolves around its very own holiday. There are fireworks and a parade (although not since the pandemic), and an artisan fair inside the French-language elementary school, which stands across the street from its English-language equivalent.

To Borough Chair Claude Charron, Lennoxville has achieved a kind of enviable and unspoken harmony among its French and English-speaking residents, which are practically equal in proportion. Charron recently obtained bilingual status for Lennoxville under Bill 96, Quebec’s new language law. 

“There’s a lot of respect. Everyone makes an effort,” Charron said. “It happens naturally. It’s not something that’s forced.” 

Thursday, major provisions of the new law take effect across the province, ones that could have tangible effects on people’s everyday lives by making it more difficult to receive services in English, and which have stoked anxiety in English-speaking and bilingual communities that a delicate balance they’ve reached could falter.

“The next six months or one year will be crucial because, now, Bill 96 will become much more concrete than it was before,” said Daniel Béland, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal and the director of the school’s Institute for the Study of Canada. 

Quebec Immigration Minister Christine Frechette, left, presents new programs on immigration at a news conference, Thursday, May 25, 2023 at the legislature in Quebec City. Quebec Premier Francois Legault, centre, and Quebec Minister Responsible for Canadian Relations and the Canadian Francophonie Jean-Francois Roberge look on.
Quebec Immigration Minister Christine Frechette, left, presents new programs on immigration at a news conference, Thursday, May 25, 2023 at the legislature in Quebec City. Quebec Premier François Legault, centre, and Quebec Minister Responsible for Canadian Relations and the Canadian Francophonie Jean-Francois Roberge look on. (Karoline Boucher/The Canadian Press)

The provisions require employees of most front-facing government agencies to serve clients in French unless those clients have acquired English-language rights, are Indigineous or are new immigrants who arrived to the province within the last six months. The acquired rights include that an English speaker be allowed to be educated in English because of their family’s anglophone history.

Are acquired rights enough?

Many drew a sigh of relief when Jean-François Roberge, the minister responsible for the French language, said government employees would count on the “good faith” of people seeking services in a language other than French, rather than require some kind of card or proof showing acquired rights.

But others worry the burden left on individual employees could create tensions. 

“Without proper training and supervision, it can lead to conflict at the front line; for instance, either an overzealous employee or a disgruntled customer,” said Eva Ludvig, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network.

“It’s nebulous,” she added.

Antoine Aylwin, a privacy lawyer at the Fasken firm in Montreal, is optimistic that people will come to mutual understandings. 

“People will make mistakes. People will request rights that they don’t have and will be frustrated. But overall, if people are able to put a little bit of water in their wine, then the biggest turmoil is behind us and not before us,” Aylwin said referring to the uproar the law caused while it was being debated at the National Assembly last year, notably for its invoking of the notwithstanding clause to help protect it from constitutional challenges. 

Tallying French-speaking employees

A man stands in an outdoor market wearing a yellow cap, blue shirt and backpack.
Alex Winnicki owns Satay Brothers restaurant in Montreal’s Saint-Henri neighbourhood with his brother Mat. (Alison Northcott/CBC)

Another part of the law coming into effect, which received some controversy in the past month, is that businesses employing between five and 49 people will have to disclose the number of employees who cannot fluently communicate in French. The proportion of French speakers will have to be listed publicly on the province’s business registry.

Alex Winnicki, who co-owns a Singaporean street food restaurant in Montreal’s Saint-Henri neighbourhood called Satay Brothers, said that while the rule means yet another task for businesses amid Quebec’s famously bureaucratic systems, it also feels symbolic. 

“I think the whole policy is for the government to please the people that put them in power and is a shot at Montreal, specifically, because Montreal has a big anglophone population, but I don’t think it’s really going to help in the long run,” said Winnicki, who was born to a Singaporean mother and Polish father, and was educated in French.

He owns the resto with his brother Mat and says all their employees can speak French. Winnicki joked that their restaurant’s internal communications were all in Polish. 

“It’s just more paperwork, another stick in the wheel of owning a business in Quebec. And, potentially, one of our fears is that it’s gonna make hiring people more difficult,” Winnicki said, nodding to the provision requiring new immigrants to learn French within six months.

French proficiency for international students

A woman speaks with another woman at a kiosk, holding a bag with a Quebec government logo.
Diana Oluvera attends an employment conference in Montreal for new immigrants to Quebec. (Alison Northcott/CBC)

In Montreal Wednesday, Diana Oluvera, an international student in business management at LaSalle College originally from Mexico City, visited a job fair for new immigrants. 

Oluvera said that though her goal was to live in Quebec, she wanted to compare employment opportunities here with others in Ontario, in case she doesn’t meet the new French proficiency requirement by the end of her program. 

“It’s not easy, at least for me, to learn french so quickly,” Oluvera said, adding she’d put her name on a waiting list for French courses but that spaces are limited given the shortage of teachers.

Under a draft regulation the government put forth this month, international students enrolled in one-year intensive programs known as AECs will have to achieve a certain French proficiency before graduating. It’s unclear, though, when or if the regulation will be put into effect.

“If I don’t achieve the level of French [in time], I’ll have to move to Ontario,” Oluvera said.

Other aspects of the law coming into effect Thursday are that adhesion contracts, such as signing up for a new cellphone or gym membership, must be in French, as well as a new platform for signing up to learn French called Francisation Québec that is launching. 

There have also been worries among English speakers that despite government assurances, they could struggle to access health services. 

A clause in the law says it does not alter the part of Quebec health care law enshrining health and social services in English for “English-speaking persons.” There are also designated institutions that are required to give services in English. 

Though speculation has abounded about how the law will affect people’s lives — and social cohesion in the province — Béland says that will all finally be put to the test, starting today.

“The proof is in the pudding, right? So, the rubber hits the road and that’s what we call policy implementation,” he said.

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