Correction appended February 27, 2013.
Next month, a parliamentary committee in Quebec’s legislative assembly will hold hearings on Bill 14 – a new piece of legislation designed to reinforce French as the language of work, education, and government. Bill 14 would enable the government to revoke the bilingual status of municipalities with less than a 50 per cent anglophone population, prevent businesses with more than 25 employees from using English in the workplace, and introduce a mandatory French proficiency test for Quebec high school and CEGEP graduates. It would also make it harder for the 24 per cent of non-French speaking immigrants who come to Quebec annually to find work in small businesses.
Bill 14 employs an underhanded method to revoke citizens’ right to access government documents in English. Under the new piece of legislation, the city of Côte-Saint-Luc, for example, could potentially lose its bilingual status because a large percentage of its population identifies their mother tongue as neither French nor English. Citizens who don’t identify as having English as their mother tongue – for example, those who consider Yiddish or Italian their mother tongue, but who use English regularly – would therefore lose their ability to access municipal documents in English, as they would only be published in French. It is unclear exactly how such a measure would protect French, but it’s clear how it would make life more difficult for anglophones.
The main body of Quebec’s language laws, which protect the right to live in French for the province’s francophone population, are contained within Bill 101, which was passed in 1976. For francophones, the bill was necessary to counter the pattern of anglophone domination in the province. The bilingualism rate among anglophone youth in Quebec is now over 90 per cent, according to a 2001 study conducted by Jack Jedwab of the Association for Canadian Studies. Despite these trends, the predominance of French is still endangered in many areas of Quebec, especially in Montreal.
For many English-speaking Quebec residents, however, the extension of the language laws in Bill 14 disrupts the status quo between the government and the anglophone population. The anglophone community largely accepts that French proficiency is necessary to obtain employment in Quebec, and the tacit compromise vis-à-vis Bill 101 has lasted without challenge for longer than a decade: anglophones have their current rights in return for assenting to the bill’s provisions. In face of this new development, a sense of anxiety among English speakers is palpable, as 42 per cent of respondents in a recent poll of anglophone Quebec residents said they are considering leaving the province.
If the government wishes to protect Quebec’s official language, then it should do so through more sensible legislation. Instead of limiting access to public documents, the government would do well to continue to defend Bill 101’s most commendable provisions. To change the linguistic classification of a community is to disallow its citizens from choosing their own preferred official language of correspondence, and furthermore, punishes those who wish to consult public documents in English. By tying the protection of French language in Quebec to a denial of the agency of municipalities to remain bilingual, Bill 14 asserts itself as an unfair piece of legislation that oversteps the responsibilities and roles of government.
— The McGill Daily Editorial Board