Vanessa Sasson is a professor of religious studies at Marianopolis College in Westmount, Quebec.
History is repeating itself in Quebec. The repressive measures deployed in Bill 96, the province’s proposed new language law, bring us back to an era of top-down control that echoes Quebec’s earlier history.
The linguistic debate comes up regularly in Quebec because the solution to the problem will always be a moving target. French is vulnerable to the world domination of English and efforts will have to be continued to ensure its vitality. This is not a story that I dispute. Most Anglophones in Quebec don’t either (despite popular fears to the contrary). Invasive methods used to reach this target, however, are. I’m talking here specifically about Bill 96, which will be voted on in the National Assembly later this month.
Quebec has long been governed by the heavy hand of the Catholic Church. At one time, it was practically impossible to separate from the government. He directed traffic inside each establishment and in the privacy of the homes of many people. The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s pushed back its ever-encroaching presence. Slowly and quietly, Quebec communities redefined themselves without this powerful institution at the helm, undoing its reach one tentacle at a time.
And yet, with Bill 96, we seem to be going back to our ecclesiastical ways, offering the government a similar invasive reach. Whereas previously it was the Church that had a hand in almost every social, educational and medical organization in the province, this bill inserts itself with similar intensity.
Bill 96 has over 200 clauses and a steady stream of added amendments. Most Quebecers haven’t read it (who would?). In the French media, it is often described as a law that will serve to protect French. It’s simplistic and entertaining. Law 96 grants the government excessive powers in matters of language; it also includes a punitive section dedicated to how others could file formal complaints if the rules are broken (the so-called snitch section).
For example, if Bill 96 is entrenched, Quebec’s law enforcement agency, the Office Quebecois de la langue française, will be able to read professional emails and texts without a warrant to make sure we speak up. in French. This will apply to medium and large companies, as well as all public bodies.
Bill 96 will apply to the many health and social services offered by the government, requiring practitioners to speak French with patients, regardless of their personal needs. Exemptions can be made for recently arrived immigrants, but they will need to prove their status before they start speaking. Imagine having to show up at the hospital with your English papers in hand. Also imagine the administrative hassle this will create for hospitals and clinics. The paperwork alone will be staggering.
In addition, Bill 96 will limit our own Francophone community’s access to Anglophone colleges (CEGEPs). Currently, French-speaking (and immigrant) children are required to complete their primary and secondary studies in French, but they are free to choose their college regardless of their linguistic history. Nearly 50 percent of students at Marianopolis College (where I teach) have already been educated in French. But this bill will cap enrollment in English-language colleges at 17.5% of students in the province. This is disconcertingly reminiscent of the quotas formerly applied in Quebec to Jews, who were also punished with school exclusion. It’s a story we shouldn’t be eager to repeat.
The reasoning behind this decision: too many strong students from the French sector are Choose go to English college. French colleges want to recover these students. But young people in Quebec know how important it is for their own future to master both languages. They choose English for their higher education because they know they need it. This bill takes that choice away from them. Many of our teachers will lose their jobs because of this government imposed discrimination.
When I reflect on these details, I see the Church returning in all its glory, but this time in the form of an encroaching government. Again, Indigenous peoples are not part of the discussion, the majority (French Quebec) eagerly crushes the minority (Anglo Quebec), while the majority remains terrified of being crushed themselves. by an even greater majority outside its provincial borders. Again, we are not working together as a province. We work against each other and bring our children into the fight with us. Instead of building bridges between our communities, we build walls.
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