With Bill 96, Quebec’s political leaders are shepherding the general public and small businesses to the brink of an economic and linguistic precipice. Surviving COVID, lockdowns, curfews, family fragmentation and inflationary pricing, and now, bearing witness to a horrifying war in Ukraine, have clearly not created enough angst for beleaguered Quebecers. With its extraordinary and heavy-handed language legislation, our own provincial government seems set on making life as difficult as possible for citizens and small businesses.
Soon we shall be living in a province where language inspectors will be authorized to enter, inspect and, in effect, harass any business with more than 24 employees. Many more students will not be able to attend the CEGEP of their choice. Heated language arguments at work, at home and during family reunions will again become part of our daily lives. All this despite having an evolved, peaceful and accepted framework already in place that maintains a high degree of protection for the French language.
For businesses that fail to comply with the language law, whose reach is now being extended to cover those with 25 employees or more, the fines are severe: up to $30,000 for a first offence, doubling and tripling thereafter. The bill goes further: “If an offense under this Act continues for more than one day, it constitutes a separate offense for each day it continues.” The unmistakable message: You will comply, because to resist will invite massive financial damage.
If we live in a truly free society, the choice of the language we use at CEGEP, in higher education, at home and at work, must be left to the individual.
In my household, French is usually the language of choice, my children having attended a useful combination of French primary, English high school, English CEGEP and French university. The result is young adults equally at ease and competent in both languages, well equipped to navigate the world at large. At work, our communication is a happy mix of languages, reflecting the wide diversity of backgrounds that make our society stronger.
The Coalition Avenir Québec government seems to be trying to convince Quebecers that they can successfully live and work solely in French, that bilingualism should be verboten, when the reality is otherwise. Most Quebecers recognize that learning both French and English will advance their employment prospects and that learning additional languages will help them succeed in the globalized economy. Quebec is not a bubble, isolated from the rest of Canada and the outside world. A healthier and more productive approach would be to look forward, not backward, encourage trilingualism, and work to raise generations of children adept in French, English and Spanish who can succeed anywhere.
When I met my wife at McGill, she could not speak English, despite having been raised in Montreal. This was a direct result of her earlier schooling and posed a major challenge to her university level studies. She required intensive English classes. Is it clever to raise generations of children who are in many ways held back due to their lack of an essential language skill, especially in our increasingly interconnected world?
By continuing to limit opportunities for youth to learn, master and work in both French and English, the CAQ government does its citizens an enormous disservice. By raising the specter of government-sanctioned harassment for businesses employing more than 24 employees, the government risks creating a renewed exodus of human potential and businesses to Ontario and beyond. Instead of encouraging businesses to grow and provide employment opportunities, the new rules seem like a deliberate attempt to annoy, upset and discourage growth among small business operators. Instead of harmony, this government is sowing discord. In a world gone mad, Bill 96 is another symptom of the nationalism we should be seeking to instinctively avoid in our civil society.
Benjamin Anson is the president of Superchute, a Montreal-based manufacturer of construction safety products. It counts 24 employees.
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