The potential problems with enacting the Quebec government’s new law to protect the French language – commonly known as Bill 96 – become apparent when one imagines the simplest of scenarios.
Let’s say your recycling bin is broken, and you want to get a new one.
If you live in Montreal, you will call the 311 information number.
But if you want to speak English with the operator, things get more complicated.
Under the new law almost all government services (with the exception of health care) must be provided in French.
There are two categories of people who would still be entitled to receive service in English or other languages: so-called “historic” Anglophones (people who were educated in English), and immigrants who have lived in Quebec for less than six months.
The city of Montreal is wondering what its 311 operators should do when asked about a new recycling bin — or something else — in English.
“Calling 311 how does one know who is entitled to receive services in English? How will the person answering the phone call verify that we can enforce the law?” Dominique Olivier, head of Montreal’s executive committee, said in an interview with CBC.
Olivier said the city fully supports the spirit of the new law, but it is awaiting a reply on its application.
The bill received royal assent in the National Assembly today.
Olivier said that so far, the province has not provided any guidance on how to implement it.
Many organizations are concerned
It’s not just the city of Montreal that’s thinking.
“Are they going to issue government IDs to people certifying that you’re entitled to service in English? I don’t know how they’re going to do that,” said Eric, president of the Coalition for Quality Health and Social Services. Maldoff and longtime advocate for Anglophone rights, said in an interview with CBC.
“Maybe they are considering whether people will be cross-examined upon arrival, and then the bureaucrats will determine if they want to serve in another language,” Maldoff said.
Several other organizations raised questions and concerns about how the law would be implemented during committee hearings in the National Assembly in January.
“Everyone is scratching their heads about this. And it’s a serious risk to the people who are running or working in these institutions,” Maldoff said.
The Quebec Union of Municipalities said in a written presentation to the committee that implementing the new law would create “many issues” for its members, “particularly when the health and safety of the population is at stake.”
“Municipalities should have some flexibility to determine the conditions in which they can communicate in a language other than French and that takes into account the demographic profile of their population,” the union said.
The Quebec Human Rights Commission in its submission also pointed out that determining who is a historically Anglophone or how long a new immigrant has been in Quebec would face “obvious practical difficulties” when enforcing the law.
The Round Table of Organizations Serving Refugees and Migrants, which represents more than 150 groups in Quebec, noted in its written presentation that the lack of accuracy in the law could pose particular problems for immigrants.
“The law nowhere mentions the definition of ‘immigrant’,” the group said.
The round table said it is not clear whether the six-month period to obtain government services in a language other than French applies only to permanent residents, or also to temporary foreign workers, and to those with precarious or immigration status. who already have very limited access to government services.
Bill 96 is a comprehensive law that covers almost all government departments, municipalities and Crown corporations.
So a lot will come up: when people are getting a new driver’s license, asking questions about their hydro bill, applying for parental leave benefits, talking to their child’s teacher. – What should government employees do in all those circumstances if they’re asked to speak English?
Details still being worked out
The short answer is that the province does not know how the law will be implemented yet.
Elisabeth Gosselin-Bienveau, spokeswoman for Simon Jolin-Barrett, the minister responsible for the French language, told the CBC in an email that Bill 96 would not apply for another year.
Over the next six months, the province would establish a new French language ministry, and that ministry would come up with a provincial linguistic policy for the entire public service and all municipalities and government organizations.
Those organizations will then have three months to submit their plans for implementing the policy to the ministry.
The ministry will have three months to review, amend and approve those plans.
Finally, the law will begin to go into effect on or around June 1 next year.
Confusion or misinformation?
But now the lack of accurate information is becoming a problem for the government.
After some high-profile national and international news coverage about the new law last week, Jolyn-Barrett suggested that “misinformation” was being circulated about the law.
This prompted the government to remove full-page advertisements in English newspapers yesterday and in French newspapers today in an attempt to clear misconceptions about the law.
But Eric Maldoff believes the government is intentionally vague about how the law will work.
“I think the way the government is hoping to enact this law is to create enough confusion and enough discretion in the hands of the language police that people won’t be sure what they can do,” Maldoff said. .
“Therefore, they are going to refrain from serving in another language to avoid getting into trouble,” he said.
Maldoff said anyone can file a complaint under the new law French Language Quebec Office (OQLF) if they believe that the Service has been improperly provided in a language other than French.
“You’ll have people who work in systems that are of goodwill, and they’re looking over their shoulder to see if anyone heard them speak in English or Greek or Italian or whatever it is,” Maldoff said. .
“All of this is going to create a lot of uncertainty in the minds of people who want to provide the services they need — a lot of panic, second guessing, hesitation,” Maldoff said.
Jolene-Barrett’s spokeswoman, Elisabeth Gosselin-Bienveau, said this was not true.
“Clear guidelines will be established based on the realities and services to be offered by different departments,” she said.