Bill 96 is an attempt to scrub English from the mouths of Quebeckers
Jeffery Vacante is an assistant professor of history at the University of Western Ontario. He is the author of National Manhood and the Creation of Modern Quebec.
At a time when there is quite a bit of talk about efforts to limit speech on college campuses, in school libraries, and on social media sites, we should take a moment to consider what is going on in the province of Quebec.
Since June 1, it has been illegal in certain instances to be heard speaking English in Quebec. It is now against the law (Bill 96) for a representative of the state, which is to say civil servants and anyone else who serves in an official capacity, to speak with a member of the public in English. If a person were to call the City of Montreal and ask in English about, say, street parking regulations in their neighbourhood, they would be told that they cannot be served in English because to do so would be against the law. If a person chose, instead, to consult the city’s website in search of this information, they would be asked to confirm that they have the right to view the contents of the site in English before they could proceed.
And who has the right to communicate with representatives of the state in English? A person who resides outside the province would. So would an immigrant who has lived in the province for fewer than six months. An Indigenous person, too, would be permitted to speak in English, as would somebody who could demonstrate that they had been communicating with the province exclusively in English prior to May 13, 2021, when the bill was tabled. And finally, a person who has the right to attend an English-language school in the province would be allowed to communicate with the government in English. Even these exceptions, however, would leave out about half of the more than one million Quebeckers who consider themselves to be English-speaking residents of the province.
For the moment, a person need only declare in good faith that they are eligible to receive services in English. The government insists that it has no intention of issuing identification cards that would affirm a person’s eligibility to speak to members of the public service in English. If too many people choose to invoke their right to speak in English, however, one wonders how long it will take before the government formalizes the process with some type of English eligibility certificate.
The Quebec government has declared that this law is necessary to protect the French language. Over the past 50 years, various governments have passed laws that have restricted the display of English on commercial signs, limited access to English-language schools, and ensured that French-speaking customers could be served in their own language. But never before has a government sought to prevent people from actually speaking in English.
The reason for this latest restriction is that it has apparently become too easy to speak English in Quebec. There are too many Quebeckers who cannot claim French as their mother tongue, politicians tell us, and too few incentives for these people to speak French. This new law is intended to show immigrants – and everyone else – that it is no longer considered socially acceptable to speak in English in Quebec. The law is nothing less than an attempt to scrub English from the mouths of Quebeckers.
The law has elicited derision and mockery from within Quebec’s English-speaking community. After all, it has created a situation whereby an English-speaking person who has lived in Quebec for decades has suddenly lost the ability to communicate with their government in English. But a person living outside the province – and who has never paid a cent in taxes to the Quebec government – can speak to a provincial civil servant in English.The law has elicited derision and mockery from within Quebec’s English-speaking community. After all, it has created a situation whereby an English-speaking person who has lived in Quebec for decades has suddenly lost the ability to communicate with their government in English. But a person living outside the province – and who has never paid a cent in taxes to the Quebec government – can speak to a provincial civil servant in English.