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Bill 96: Quebec public servants now required to make 'exemplary' use of French

MONTREAL — Quebec's language law reform is continuing to draw criticism and legal challenges from the province's English community as more of its provisions come into effect Thursday, exactly a year after it received royal assent.
People take part in a protest against Bill 96 in Montreal, Thursday, May 26, 2022. Quebec's language law reform is continuing to draw criticism and legal challenges from the province's English community, a year after it was adopted, as more of its provisions come into effect. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL — Quebec's language law reform is continuing to draw criticism and legal challenges from the province's English community as more of its provisions come into effect Thursday, exactly a year after it received royal assent.

While many elements of the law, commonly known as Bill 96, took effect shortly after it was passed, others were delayed. Those include restrictions on communications with the provincial government in languages other than French, French-language requirements for certain contracts and a requirement that small businesses tell the government how many of their employees don't speak French.

The Quebec government has described the law as a moderate response to what it says is the declining use of French in the province, particularly in Montreal. Quebec Premier François Legault has repeatedly said that French will always be under threat in North America and he wants to avoid Quebec becoming like Louisiana, where few people speak French despite the state's French history.

But Eva Ludvig, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, said the changes taking effect Thursday — and others to follow — will make life harder for English-speaking Quebecers. "We are now seeing the impact of a bad bill, a draconian bill," she said in an interview. "We see what this really means and the impact it will have on the day-to-day lives of business people, of everyday workers, of students."

Here are three of the main changes coming into effect:

Civil service to use French "in an exemplary manner"

Chantal Bouchard, spokeswoman for the watchdog that enforces the province's language laws, says this change means that when on the job, civil servants "must speak and write exclusively in French, except in certain cases." The rule will not affect access to health care and social services in English, Bouchard said.

In a directive to government agencies, the province's French Language Department said other exceptions include situations where health, public safety or principles of natural justice require the use of languages other than French.

"We won't leave anyone in danger," Jean-François Roberge, Quebec's Minister of the French Language, told reporters in Quebec City, Wednesday, adding that 911 services will still be available in English. 

There are also exceptions for Indigenous people, those who communicated with the government in English before the bill was tabled in May 2021 and people who have the right to English-language schooling in Quebec. Immigrants can also be served in another language, but only for the first six months they live in Quebec.

Roberge said the government will rely on people's "good faith" when they self-identify as belonging to one of the exempt groups. He said government officials will ask a few questions to establish that people are entitled to receive service in English, but they won't be issuing anglophone identity cards.

Also starting Thursday, government websites with English-language content began displaying banners informing people that the content is intended only for people eligible to receive government communications in English.

On the City of Montreal's website, for example, users are now informed that English content "is intended for the public covered by the exceptions under Bill 96" and anyone browsing the site in English is acknowledging they belong to one of the designated groups.

The city's 311 information line now has a recorded message telling callers that "we will be pleased to serve you in English, if you attest in good faith" that you belong to one of the exempt groups.

Small businesses must report how many employees can't communicate in French

This requirement applies to businesses with between five and 49 employees, and the data will be made public by the province's corporate registry. 

François Vincent, Quebec vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said the requirement will mean more paperwork for small business owners at a time when they're already facing a labour shortage.

"I think it will be important for the government to be flexible," he said. "They should help and support the businesses to get the information the government needs without giving fines."

Other provisions intended to increase the use of French in small businesses and further restrict the use of languages other than French on signs go into effect in June 2025.

Contracts of adhesion must be presented in French to both parties

These are standard contracts drawn up by one of the parties, such as employment contracts, collective agreements, insurance policies, franchise agreements and telephone service contracts.

As long as a French copy has been presented, people can then decide to request the contract in another language.

Vincent said this measure will cost his members more if they have to prepare two copies of the same contract and pay for translation.

Other changes related to the law — including French-language requirements for students in the province's English junior colleges — come into effect this fall.

The law faces several legal challenges, including one filed at the Montreal courthouse on Wednesday.

That suit, brought on behalf of six English-speaking Quebecers who say they already struggle to get government services in English and worry the situation will deteriorate as more elements of Bill 96 come into effect, seeks to have many aspects of the bill struck down.

"On the first of June, a lot will change," said Andrew Caddell, president of the Task Force on Linguistic Policy, the organization that brought the suit, and one of the six plaintiffs. 

Caddell told reporters he worries the law's far-reaching impacts will make English-speaking Quebecers second-class citizens. "We can protect a language and community without eliminating the rights of another," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2023. 

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press