There will be legal challenges and a public pressure campaign against Bill 96, which was voted into law Tuesday afternoon.
Noted human rights lawyer Julius Gray said a team of lawyers and rights activists is already meeting to determine the best way to legally challenge the law.
“There are a lot of lawyers who are thinking about it,” Gray said. “We’ll work it out and we’ll decide who pays what part. It’s not going to be one or two or three people; it will be more than that to try to do the best possible job.”
Called An Act Respecting French, the Official and Common Language of Quebec, Bill 96 aims to update and strengthen Bill 101, the French-language charter introduced in 1977, and brings in measures that affect everything from immigration, education and health care to businesses, municipalities and the judicial system.
The bill gives the Office québécois de la langue française search and seizure powers, without the need for a warrant, to ensure compliance.
“It’s a sad day for Quebec,” Gray said. “I think it is a terrible law. It has destroyed the harmony that existed for the last 25 years. We had relative language peace, and now the balance has been disturbed.
“I think we’ll be in greater tension, because this law really is unjust to everyone, including Francophones.”
Gray said the new law sets the stage for years of linguistic tensions.
“The law will do absolutely no good to anyone. No one will feel they have gained anything, as a result, the language activists will feel we didn’t go far enough. I think the best solution will be for the courts to come in.”
Gray expects a long fight, possibly to the Supreme Court of Canada and even to international courts.
While Bill 96 invokes the notwithstanding clause to override provisions contained in the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights, Gray noted there has already been a challenge to the use of the clause in Bill 21, which bans teachers and police officers, among other public servants, from wearing religious symbols on the job. The outcome of that challenge will have consequences for Bill 96, he said.
The Quebec Community Groups Network has vowed to support any fight against the law, and plans to mount a public awareness campaign, starting with a protest in Montreal set for Thursday evening.
“We are deeply disappointed and frustrated that Bill 96 was adopted today without any significant improvements since it was first tabled. It does not reflect our vision of an inclusive Quebec where French is the common language,” QCGN president Marlene Jennings said in a statement.
Among its concerns — and contrary to government assurances — the QCGN says only so-called historic anglophones with eligibility certificates will have access to services in English under Bill 96, leaving out between 300,000 and 500,000 English-speaking Quebecers.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he had some concerns about the law, and noted the importance of protecting minority rights across the country, while adding he recognizes the need to protect the French language and culture.
“I know how important it is to support francophone communities outside Quebec, but it’s also very important to protect the anglophone community within Quebec,” Trudeau told reporters.
Meanwhile, the activist group Impératif Français expressed its disappointed with Bill 96, saying it doesn’t go far enough.
The group’s president, Jean-Paul Perreault, said the provisions of Bill 101 that apply to primary and secondary schools should have been extended to CEGEPs, so that only those have been educated in English in Canada, or their children, would be eligible to attend English CEGEPs.
Instead, Bill 96 places enrollment caps in the English system, limits how many francophones and allophones can access English CEGEPs, and requires all students there to take more courses in French.
“The government needed to go further by extending Bill 101 to CEGEPs and the first year of university,” Perreault said. Its failure to do so means language tensions in Quebec “will come back,” I predicted. “In how long? It’s hard for me to say.”
Perreault called those who have raised concerns about Bill 96 “alarmists,” and said he is happy the debate around the new legislation has been mostly sober.
Meanwhile, the Fédération des cégeps expressed its disappointed with the new French-language requirements in English CEGEPs, where francophones and allophones will be forced to take three of their core courses in French, while anglophones will have the option of taking three French-language instruction classes, on top of the two already required. The group says many students arrive at college with insufficient French skills, and the new rules will harm their chances of success.
Presse Canadienne contributed to this report.
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