Ontario’s neighbour to the east has never been shy about promoting or legislating the use of the French language, but Quebec’s Bill 96 makes the province’s language laws even more strict. The introduction of the Bill makes a straightforward and unapologetic statement about the French language. “The purpose of this bill is to affirm that the only official language of Québec is French. It also affirms that French is the common language of the Québec nation,” the opening reads.
Simply put, Bill 96 legislates the fundamental right for Quebec residents to be served in French when visiting stores or seeking services, including from private businesses. Bill 96 also applies to professional bodies, such as Colleges that require membership to practice professions such as psychotherapy and teaching. The Bill requires those working in the fields to maintain a knowledge of French that is appropriate to the practice of their profession.
In some cases, Bill 96 also restricts the use of English. For example, certain Municipal by-laws in Quebec will now have to be adopted and published exclusively in French – official English versions will not be permitted. However, people will still be permitted to use English in Quebec courts, and can still access healthcare in English. Some English-speaking Quebec residents have still expressed concerns when it comes to healthcare in the province, since the Bill discourages medical services being provided in any language other than French.
Not surprising is that Bill 96 includes provisions for business signage to be predominantly in French. This requirement has been included in other Quebec language legislation for many years. However, the new Bill tightens the rules even more, allowing branding exceptions only for businesses that have never registered a French trademark, such as Canadian Tire.
Bill 96 can be enforced with fines ranging from $700 to $7,000 for individuals, and $3,000 to $30,000 for businesses and professional bodies. While it seems clear that Bill 96 will not be used to govern what people do in private (for example, two staff members at a business who want to have a private conversation in English), however, other seemingly innocent interactions could result in fines if a complaint is lodged. For example, a professional who mistakenly begins an interaction with a client in English could be subject to a fine if the client complains. There is little doubt that these new measures are strict, but the question up for debate is whether they are necessary.
The overwhelming dominance of the French language still holds true in Quebec – one study suggests that about 79% of households in Quebec speak French as their primary language, with over 90% of residents able to hold a conversation in French. However, there has been a very slow decline in the dominance of the French language in Quebec in past decades, leading to measures designed to preserve the French language and prevent overtaking by English language speakers. Some believe these measures are necessary, while others do not. One hurdle to the new rules will be the enforcement of the rules in predominantly English-speaking towns in Quebec, such as Wakefield, which could cause conflicts as traditional ways of life are interrupted. Only time will tell how Bill 96 helps, and the ways in which it is enforced.