Photo by Matt.Hebert, via Flickr.

In the first week of November, the CEO of Air Canada, Michael Rousseau, announced that his upcoming speech to the Metropolitan Montreal Chamber of Commerce would be in English only.

Immediately the Quebec media started to protest. Apparently, he received warnings from the federal Commissioner of Official Languages and from the Quebec government that it would be wise to ensure that at least some parts of the speech be in French. But to no avail. After an awkward “Bonjour,” he proceeded with his speech in English only. When asked by journalists about how it looked that the head of Air Canada, with its head office in Montreal, had not used French in this major appearance, he calmly proclaimed that he had more pressing things to do than learn French. To top it off, he declared he had lived in English for 14 years in the Montreal area and that this was a testament to the city!

The same week, Immigration Canada posted unilingual English positions for its Montreal call centre, claiming it couldn’t find bilingual candidates because of the labour shortage. The chief judge of the Cour du Québec decided to sue the Justice Minister, who is also the minister responsible for the French language, because a call for candidates for several justice positions in five regions, including Montreal, did not include any requirement of a knowledge of English.

So language was once again making headlines in Quebec, just as the latest attempt to reform the French Language Charter, An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec, commonly referred to as Bill 96, was being adopted in principle by the National Assembly.

Election promises

The renewed discussion in Quebec about how to protect the French language has actually been a long time coming. The 2018 election platform of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), which won the election under François Legault, contained several promises to act to protect the French language in Quebec.

The CAQ promised to strengthen the powers of the Office Québécois de la Langue Française (OQLF), with a view to increasing the francization of the workplace.¹ It also announced that it would appoint a Commissioner of the French Language to deal with complaints from the public and make recommendations to the government, and promised compulsory francization for any “new arrival” requesting a Quebec Selection Certificate (QSC).²

This last promise revealed an astonishing lack of understanding of how the Quebec immigration system works. And it only got worse as the campaign progressed because Legault went further, saying that new arrivals, after spending three years in Quebec, would have to pass a test demonstrating an understanding of Quebec values and the French language. If they failed, they could try again in a year, and if they failed again, they would not receive their QSC and would have to leave Quebec. Once the CAQ was in power, someone finally explained to them that no provincial government, not even Quebec, has the power of expulsion. The idea was dropped.

Other parties also promised to protect the French language. The issue was prominent in the Parti Québécois (PQ) platform, which promised to reform the French Language Charter (Bill 101), apply it to companies with 25 or more employees (rather than the current floor of 50 employees), require employers to justify English requirements when hiring, and select only immigrants who have learned French before arrival. Québec Solidaire (QS) vowed to strengthen French in the workplace and apply Bill 101 to companies of 10 employees or more. The Liberals’ commitments were harder to find and confined essentially to strengthening the francization of the workplace.

How do we measure the future of a language?

The incidents mentioned above are only the latest components of the backdrop that led to the legislation. There had been growing pressure for the government to act. Its own OQLF has published 12 studies since 2018 on various subjects, including the use of French in retail stores, in the workplace and in public, the proportion of companies and municipalities requiring a knowledge of English in their hiring, and the number of anglophone, francophone and allophone students registered in English and French schools and postsecondary institutions. There were also several demolinguistic studies on the language spoken most frequently in the home by Quebec francophones, anglophones, allophones and immigrants, as well as projections of the strength of French, English and third languages up to 2036. Many of these studies were used to produce the five-year analysis of the situation of the French language published in 2018, required under the French Language Charter.

Linguistic demographers, including those at Statistics Canada, make their predictions on the future strength of a language using data on the language spoken most often at home and its corollary, language substitution. If I answer on the census form that my mother tongue is Italian and the language I speak most often at home is French, I have made a language substitution (or transfer). Looking at the trend in language substitutions along with demographic trends (birth and death rates, migrations) and immigration levels, linguistic demographers can predict how many people will be speaking a particular language several years into the future. The language spoken at home is considered to be the best predictor of the language that will be spoken by the next generation. Immigration trends and rates of language substitution among immigrants significantly influence the future of French in Quebec. Also, more and more, we are seeing mother-tongue francophones in Quebec speaking English in the home.

Although there is a consensus among experts on the use of the home language indicator, many outside the field, particularly in Quebec, are uncomfortable with the idea of measuring the language spoken at home, arguing that it is the language spoken in public that counts and constitutes the objective of the Language Charter: French as the official and common language of Quebec, as Bill 96 states.

Language policy in Quebec, or anywhere in Canada for that matter, has never legislated the language spoken at home. But language spoken at home is currently recognized as the best indicator for measuring the intergenerational survival of a language. A simple statistic illustrates the difference between the future of French in Quebec and the future of English in Canada. In 2016, among allophones who spoke either English or French as principal home language, in Quebec 55 per cent had chosen French and 45 per cent had chosen English, whereas in the rest of Canada over 99 per cent had chosen English.

What do defenders of French want?

Organizations defending the French language have concentrated their calls for action on a few specific issues. They want the provincial public sector to put more emphasis on French in its interactions with citizens, rather than automatically switching to English if faced with someone who is not francophone. They want less automatic bilingualism in retail outlets and restaurants (the famous “Bonjour-Hi” debate).

The demand likely to do most in slowing the decline of French in Quebec would be to apply the same rules on access to English cegeps as on access to English primary and secondary schools since passage of Bill 101 in 1977.³ In oversimplified terms, Bill 101 specifies that only children with at least one parent who received most of his or her Canadian primary schooling in English may be registered in English public schools in Quebec. The shorthand for this demand is “applying Bill 101 to cegeps.”

Another proposal is to finance English and French cegeps proportionally to the English and French mother-tongue populations in Quebec. In the past, the debate centred on the attraction of English cegeps to allophones coming out of French high schools, but recent studies have brought to light a significant and increasing number of native-born French-speaking Quebecers choosing to attend the English cegeps.

At least four recent books examining the linguistic situation in Quebec and Canada highlight the attraction of English cegeps in Quebec. Two are by Charles Castonguay, with titles roughly translated as French in Freefall and The Fiasco of Canadian Language Policy; the other two are by Frédéric Lacroix: again roughly translated, Why Bill 101 is a Failure and Free Choice? English Cegeps and International Students: Diversion, Anglicization and Fraud. The authors, both of whom write regularly in a left-wing online (with monthly print edition) journal called L’Aut’journal, have gotten a fair amount of French media coverage.⁴

The CAQ itself has triggered outcries by announcing large sums for the expansion of the English cegep that has come to dominate admissions on the island of Montreal, Dawson College, as well as by ceding to McGill University the old Royal Victoria Hospital, largely emptied since the opening of the English megahospital, McGill University Health Centre.

Other demands include eliminating the blanket requirement of a knowledge of English in hiring. This trend is expanding, according to the OQLF’s own study. It is a concern because anglicization of the workplace in Quebec hinders efforts to francize new arrivals. There have been demands to expand the number of companies required to meet francization criteria established by the OQLF. At this point, companies with 50 or more employees are covered by these criteria. The PQ, when in power, tried unsuccessfully to apply them to companies with 25 or more employees. QS, the second opposition party, proposes to bring the threshold down to 10 employees, largely to include the companies where immigrants are most present.

Organizations defending French, along with the PQ (currently the third opposition party) and QS, also lament the fact that the annual proportion of new permanent residents who declare a knowledge of French has dipped below 50 per cent and that the francization of new arrivals does not seem to be working. The Quebec Auditor General, in a report published at the end of 2017, severely criticized the effectiveness of the Ministry of Immigration’s francization programs and the lack of means of even measuring their effectiveness. Even though extra money has been invested in the programs and eligibility criteria have been widened, there is still no evidence of improvement in the results.

Until recently, nationalists have consistently called for reduction in immigration levels to resolve the language problem. However, it has become evident that the French language is threatened by much more than the immigrants who come to Quebec and are faced with learning not only French but also English if they want to get work. Employers are constantly pushing for immigration levels to rise because of labour shortages. The evolution away from blaming immigrants for the problems facing the future of French, while not complete, is a welcome one. The language debate can no longer be used to hide fundamentally ethnocentric anti-immigrant sentiments.

Leaving francophones hungry for more and anglophones nervous

In the first two years of the CAQ’s mandate, the government proposed little to strengthen the protection of French, but in 2020 Premier Legault shuffled his cabinet and put Simon Jolin-Barrette in charge of the file. Jolin-Barrette had been Immigration Minister, and during his time in that portfolio he opened francization programs to temporary workers. He was also the minister who brought in the controversial secularism law, Bill 21 – and managed to get it adopted. Now, as Justice Minister, he will be overseeing the court cases arising from that legislation.

Jolin-Barrette is a young lawyer – brilliant, doggedly nationalist and very close to the Premier. He is also interested in constitutional law, particularly as it applies to Quebec. Shortly after taking over responsibility for the French language file, he started making “teaser” announcements. In August, October and November 2020, he repeatedly promised an “action plan” on language reform “soon.” Finally, in May 2021, he and the Premier tabled Bill 96. No action plan, no white paper. Instead, a 100-page bill with more than 200 articles. This is an extremely long and complex piece of legislation, purported to be an overhaul of the French Language Charter.

The lack of a white paper or action plan to accompany the legislation meant that the vision of the government’s reform was ungrounded. Press releases, press conferences, media interviews and a Facebook post from the Premier all made mention of the decline of French in Quebec and exalted the government’s response. However, such issues as declining francophone immigration rates and the increasing pervasiveness of English in the arts, culture and media were avoided.

The legislation does address the major concerns raised by the groups defending the French language in recent years, but it does so in such a way that nobody is convinced it will make a difference – many feel that several of the proposed changes will be impossible to implement. More than 50 stakeholder groups and experts were heard in legislative committee in October. They all agreed with the principle of taking measures to protect the French language, and only the anglophone representatives refused to speculate on the actual decline of French. But when it came to the details, the questions and concerns were numerous.

Some reactions were predictable. The private sector doesn’t want any more red tape and the Chamber of Commerce – which warned the CEO of Air Canada not to give a speech in English only – resisted any obligation to justify requiring English in the hiring process and made veiled threats that more rigorous language regulation would result in companies leaving Montreal for Toronto.

The legislation attempts to reassure anglophones that government services will continue to be available in English and, at the same time, assure francophones that French will be the exclusive language of communication with the government for anyone except anglophones. The reassurances aren’t working. Bill 96 muddies the waters by introducing a definition of eligible anglophones which is different from the one found in the Health and Social Services Act. The new definition will be impossible to implement because the identifying information does not exist in any government database.

Since the government reform has not addressed the issue of selecting immigrants who already have knowledge of French, it is putting all its eggs in the basket of francizing immigrants once they have arrived – despite its lack of results in this field. The bill “creates” an organization called Francisation Québec, an administrative unit of the Ministry of Immigration, that will ostensibly coordinate all government-financed adult French second-language courses in the province with an interactive platform that will offer one-stop access.

The proposal received unanimous support from groups working with immigrants. The problem is that successive governments since 2005 have announced and attempted to install a similar, much less ambitious platform, including one-stop access targeting only adult immigrants and only French-language courses offered by the two ministries of Immigration and Education. It’s still far from operational in the fall of 2021.

The government, in particular the Premier himself, has rejected the option of applying Bill 101 to cegeps. It wants to maintain the option of free choice, particularly because it is the choice of so many young francophones, a key target group for the CAQ.
It has come up with a complicated formula to cap admissions to English cegeps in such a way as to ensure that the proportion of college students enrolled in these institutions will not grow. It also wants to reserve spaces in the English colleges for students graduating from English high schools. Some anglophones are currently not accepted into English colleges because they don’t have the marks to get in. This is raising the concern that the English cegeps are becoming more elitist. None of the concerned groups understand how the system will actually function and the Quebec Liberal Party spokesperson on language, Hélène David, a former Minister of Higher Education, dismisses the idea as inoperable.

Several researchers testifying before the committee pointed out the confusion in the bill over which organization, the Commission of the French Language or the OQLF, is tasked with producing the studies and analyses of the situation and future of French. The independence of this research is considered critical, and if left with the OQLF it would be subject to ministerial review prior to publication. Some have argued it should instead be in the purview of an independent director of research, perhaps linked to the new Commissioner of the French Language, created by the bill and reporting to the National Assembly.

All these ambiguities and many others will come out in the clause-by-clause consideration of the bill which should start before the National Assembly session breaks in the second week of December.

Symbolic gestures?

But it is two other elements in this bill that are the most likely to draw reaction outside Quebec.

As in Bill 21, the Act respecting the Laicity of the State, the government has included “notwithstanding” clauses to protect the new language act against judicial moves based on the Quebec and Canadian charters of human rights. Jolin-Barrette puts a positive spin on this decision, referring to it as “parliamentary sovereignty.” Predictably, anglophone rights groups, the Commission de Droits de la Personne du Québec and some of the constitutionalists who testified criticized these notwithstanding clauses.

Some wondered which aspects of the bill the government is afraid would be contested. A reasonable question, since there doesn’t seem to be anything that goes against current Canadian jurisprudence on language. However, these clauses represent an important symbolic gesture because many elements of the original French Language Charter were ruled unconstitutional after they were challenged on the basis of equality rights in the Canadian Charter. The use of notwithstanding clauses in Bill 96 is a signal that the CAQ does not want the same thing to happen to this legislation.

The surprise feature of Bill 96 was a clause that amends the Constitution Act, 1867.

Section 159 reads:

The Constitution Act, 1867 (30 & 31 Victoria, c. 3 (U.K.); 1982, c. 11 (U.K.)) is amended by inserting the following after section 90:
“90Q.1. Quebecers form a nation.
“90Q.2. French shall be the only official language”

The government defends this approach based on the unilateral amendment procedure in Section 45 of the Constitution Act, 1982. This article provides that the legislature of each province may exclusively (unilaterally) make laws amending the constitution of the province. Eight constitutionalists were invited to testify on this section of the bill. Although they all agreed that Quebec can do what it wants with respect to its internal constitution, they differed widely on whether entrenching two provincial constitutional principles in the Canadian constitution would pass muster and, even if it did, whether it would be more than symbolic. Supporters of the idea are convinced that this is constitutional and that, once entrenched, the principles would be considered by the courts when reviewing Quebec legislation. Other constitutionalists are of the opinion that the proposal changes the basic structure of the Canadian constitution, which cannot be accomplished unilaterally. Time will tell. In the meantime, Jolin-Barrette clearly feels that this is quite a coup and that it will reinforce Quebec nationalist pride and give supralegislative protection to Quebec language legislation.

More electoral strategy than practical implementation

Bill 96 was adopted in principle on November 9. The session breaks on December 10 and resumes on February 1, 2022. The government undoubtedly aims to have the bill adopted before the end of the spring session on June 10, perhaps even early in the session since the bill provides that the sections related to English cegeps will be in place for the 2022–23 school year. Cegeps start their fall semester the week before Labour Day. In anticipation of Bill 96’s not being passed in time, the Higher Education Minister announced in June 2021 that the number of places in English cegeps will be frozen for 10 years. This decision seems to undermine the French language bill and is actually slightly more restrictive with respect to access to English cegeps. Many other aspects of the bill won’t come into effect within a year and certain measures won’t come into effect within three years.

Clause-by-clause study will be arduous. The Quebec Liberals, on day one of the experts’ and stakeholders’ hearings, warned the government not to try to use closure to get the bill adopted precipitously and reiterated this notice during the debate on adoption in principle. Was this a legitimate concern that there is a lot to cover and it needs to be done right – or a warning by the Liberals that they intend to filibuster the next step? Either way, the government used closure to get Bill 21 enacted and won’t hesitate to do the same with this legislation.

Despite the notwithstanding clauses, there will undoubtedly be legal challenges to various parts of the legislation, notably the section that amends the Canadian constitution.

The next Quebec election will be in early October 2022. The government is aware that very little of the new act will be implemented by that time. For electoral purposes, what’s important is that it be adopted and that the measures related to English cegeps and the constitutional amendment be in place. The reform of the French Language Charter and Bill 21 will be front and centre for the CAQ in the next elections.

In a future issue of Inroads, we will come back to this legislation to look at its final form and the debate, if any, that it triggers inside and outside Quebec.


¹ The OQLF is the government agency tasked with implementing and administering the French Language Charter, commonly referred to as Bill 101. The expression francization is used in two ways in Quebec, referring to the francization of the workplace (ensuring that documents, manuals, software, etc. are all in French) and the francization of immigrants. Francization programs for non-francophone immigrants are French-language courses designed specifically for those coming from outside Canada to settle in Québec. It is also important to understand that the word allophone, which in Canada describes anyone whose first language is neither French nor English, is often unfortunately used interchangeably with immigrant. This is a function of how Statistics Canada publishes its official-language projections. While almost all allophones are first-generation immigrants, not all immigrants are allophones.

² The QSC is the document confirming that the person has been selected by the Quebec government for immigration to Quebec and ensures approval for permanent residence from the federal government.

³ Cegeps are postsecondary colleges in Quebec that offer both technical and preuniversity programs.

⁴ I myself write monthly on immigration in L’Aut’journal and have brought attention to the impact on the French language of lower francophone numbers among new permanent residents in the province and rising temporary immigration numbers. Temporary residents are generally less francophone and are allowed to send their children to English public school.