Hanes: After divisive Bill 96 debate, what happens next for Quebec anglophones?

Poised to be passed into law this week, Bill 96 will usher in a new and uncertain period for the English-speaking minority, with a fallout that is political, social and existential.

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Whether English-speaking Quebecers like it or not, Bill 96 will likely be passed into law in the National Assembly this week, perhaps as early as Tuesday.

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The fight against draconian aspects of the most extensive overhaul of Quebec’s language legislation in generations is over, and little has changed to lessen the blow on the rights of Anglophones and other minorities.

By now we’re aware of some of the practical repercussions: the capping of enrollment in English CEGEPs to reduce the number of francophones and allophones at those institutions; the application of the French-language charter to businesses with 25 employees or more; the six-month window before new immigrants are denied access to public services in English.

We’re bracing for the first time the Office québécois de la langue française exercises its new warrantless search and seizure powers based on an anonymous complaint — all the while knowing its excesses are not going to be as entertaining as the Pastagate absurdity of yore.

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But the divisive debate of the past year has also taken a wider toll, reawakening long-dormant tensions between English- and French-speaking Quebecers and reviving historical grudges that seemed to belong to a bygone era. As the adoption of Bill 96 redefines the relations between English-speakers and the state, it will usher in a new and uncertain period for Quebec’s anglophone minority, with fallout that is political, social and existential.

Politically, a lot of bridges have been burned.

There has never been much love lost between Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government and the English-speaking community. But Bill 96 has deepened mistrust, especially as Legault’s reassuring words have so often been at odds with his actions.

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On the day the legislation was presented last spring, Legault promised the bill was “nothing against the English Quebecers.” Yet closer scrutiny showed it included clauses curtailing English services, not to mention enshrining the collective rights of francophones over those of individuals and minorities, while using the notwithstanding clause to shield it all from court challenges.

Last week Legault pushed back against concerns about access to health care in English, complaining of “disinformation.” Even if patients won’t need an eligibility certificate for English school to get health and social services in their mother tongue — an alarming aspect of the bill that was eventually softened with an amendment — legal experts and medical professionals, even the Collège des médecins, remain troubled about gray areas, like whether using a language other than French with patients will be tolerated in matters that aren’t life and death.

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The government has attempted to adopt a more conciliatory tone in the wake of a big protest against Bill 96 on May 14. Minister of the French language Simon Jolin-Barrette claims the government has “no hidden agenda” and that fears about the OQLF are overblown . But are we panicking, or being gaslit?

The fact Legault just refused to participate in an English debate during the upcoming election campaign because French is Quebec’s only official language demonstrates contempt, especially when the CAQ is poised to win a significant majority.

Trust has also been shattered between the English-speaking community and the Quebec Liberal Party over Bill 96. There was a sense of betrayal after the Liberals proposed an amendment requiring more French courses in English CEGEPs, which many educators warned would doom some anglophone students to failure. Facing a backlash, leader Dominique Anglade showed great humility in acknowledging the mistake and trying to fix it (sort of). But it may be too late to repair the damage.

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Two new parties have formed that vow to stand up for anglophone and minority rights: the Canadian Party of Quebec and Mouvement Québec. But it’s hard to see how English-speakers’ interests will be served by rivals going after Liberal support in that party’s traditional ridings. If the vote splinters three ways, anglophones, allophones and other minorities could end up with less representation in the National Assembly, not more. The October election could shake up the political landscape in Montreal and elsewhere — but perhaps not in the ways many hope.

Socially, there has been a deeper entrenchment of the Two Solitudes, another notion that had seemed to passé. This is one of the more tragic consequences of Bill 96 and the social debate surrounding it — especially for younger generations that were the bridge between languages ​​and cultures. The cap on enrollment at English CEGEPs and the addition of more French courses will mean less interaction between anglophone, francophone and allophone students. Teachers lament the loss of this coming together of backgrounds and perspectives in their classrooms — part of what has made English colleges so vibrant.

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If there is anger over Bill 96, there is also existential angst.

Members of Quebec’s English community, who have made much progress in accepting and embracing French, are once again being caricatured as “angryphones” in some quarters. This denies the great diversity of Quebec English-speakers, who come from an array of races, beliefs and cultures, including Indigenous communities.

Anglo bashing is back in fashion. Legitimate criticism has been dismissed as predictable opposition by the world’s most spoiled minority (another trope) rather than considered as arguments with any merit.

An unfortunate and false juxtaposition has been made that English-speakers are the problem — and not English itself — as Yves Boisvert wrote in La Presse. As such, Bill 96 is needlessly punitive and does little to bring people together to promote French.

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Once upon a time, the feeling of being second-class citizens unwelcome in our own province might have prompted many anglophones to pack boxes and head down the 401. Maybe this is what the Legault government secretly wants.

But if English-speaking Quebecers are here today, it’s because we chose to be, because this is our home, because we want to contribute to North America’s only official French-speaking society, because we want to belong to the greater “nous.”

We do, however, have the right to exist, to speak English and to take pride in our own culture, language and history.

So, what now? Where do we go from here? What more can we do to be considered full-fledged Québécois? With Bill 96 a fait accompli, there will be much soul searching.

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