The streets of downtown Montreal were flooded with protesters on Saturday as many rallied against Bill 96, the law proposed by the Quebec government to reform its Charter of the French language.

Organized by groups representing the province’s English-speaking community, the protest sought to send a strong message to the majority government that the legislation as it stands is unacceptable.

“We are telling Premier [François] Legault and his CAQ government [that] we are Quebecers,” said Marlene Jennings, president of the Network of Community Groups of Quebec.

“We appreciate and support French, we want to see it protected and promoted, but not on our backs, not on our fundamental rights.”

Presented a year ago, Bill 96 is in the final stages of approval and is expected to come to a vote in the National Assembly later this month. It would make several changes to the 1977 Charter of the French Language, also known as Bill 101, by strengthening the status of French in “all spheres of society”.

While many protesters said French should be protected in the province, they said this law will restrict access to education, health care and justice for non-French speakers. (The Canadian Press)

Despite the sweltering heat, protesters took off from Dawson College at 10:30 am and marched just under a mile to the Montreal offices of Quebec Premier François Legault at the corner of Sherbrooke and McGill College Avenue.

Signs reading “Is there a place for me in Quebec?” and “Protect the French, but not at the expense of English rights” were seen in the crowd.

While many protesters agreed that French should be protected in the province, they said the law will restrict access to education, health care and justice for those whose first language is not French.

‘Additional burden for our people,’ says indigenous activist

Proposed changes to the charter include requiring newcomers to Quebec to receive government services exclusively in French after six months in the province, which many have called an unrealistic timeline for learning a new language.

An amendment to the bill was also recently passed that would require students in CEGEPs in English to take three additional courses in French, with no exception for indigenous students.

Kenneth Deer of the Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk) Nation of Kahnawake called the move colonial and insensitive.

“We are fighting to keep our own language alive. Therefore, Bill 96 places an additional burden on our people,” he said.

“Our priority is for our people to learn Mohawk.”

An amendment to Bill 96 was recently approved that would require students in CEGEPs in English to take three additional courses in French, with no exceptions for indigenous students. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC News)

To ensure that French is “the official and common language of Quebec,” the government would also impose new obligations related to the use of French in companies with 25 to 49 employees, limit the use of English in the courts and public services, grant powers warrantless search and seizure to Quebec’s language regulator and limit enrollment in English CEGEPs to prevent more students from French-language schools from switching to the English stream.

Quebec Liberal Party leader Dominique Anglade participated in the protest on Saturday, saying there are better ways to strengthen the French language than by creating a division among Quebecers.

“We are very aware of the importance of the French language, the importance of its protection, of its promotion,” Anglade said.

“But we have to do it in an inclusive way, for all Quebecers, and that’s not what Bill 96 is doing right now.”

The minister responsible for the French language in Quebec, Simon Jolin-Barrette, has vigorously defended Bill 96 against criticism, as has Legault, who has described it as reasonable, balanced and necessary “to ensure adequate protection of the French language”. “

The government has preemptively invoked the notwithstanding clause, which will limit the possibility of a legal challenge against the law.

Despite Legault’s assurances that the rights of English speakers will be protected, Dawson College student Kiana Lalavie worries how additional French courses at English CEGEPs could affect international students and newcomers to Québec.

“They don’t have the rights in English,” he said. “Your R-score would go down, your opportunities in life will be limited, and you won’t be able to get into the programs of your choice.”

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