Bill 96 Perpetuates Linguistic Colonialism

The law would further erase Indigenous languages and limit healthcare and legal access

The major consultation phase of Quebec’s new proposed language law, Bill 96, is taking place from September 21 to October 7. Since its introduction on May 13 by Language Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, the bill has faced criticism as it claims to protect French as the official language of Quebec, thereby displacing non-French speakers – Indigenous non-French speakers in particular. Citing the “decline” of French linguistic and cultural presence in Quebec, premier and CAQ leader Francois Legault introduced the legislation as an ambitious upgrade to Bill 101 (the Charter of the French Language). Notably, Bill 96 further limits the accessibility of legal and healthcare services to non-French speakers. Among other areas of concern, Bill 96 is another piece of legislation designed to perpetuate colonialism through linguistic assimilation and advance the strong sentiments of Quebec nationalism within the CAQ government.

Though Legault claims that the rights of English speakers will be protected under Bill 96, only three English organizations were granted the right to participate in parliamentary hearings. The Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN), who organized a series of hearings for anglophone communities in response to this exclusion, outlined several reasons of concern: “[the bill will] hurt businesses; limit access to public services, education, and employment; [and] constrain expression in a variety of ways.” Alarmingly, the bill invokes the same notwithstanding clause as Bill 21. This notwithstanding clause allows the CAQ-dominated provincial government to override the provincial and federal charters of rights. In doing so, the bill establishes a “hierarchy of rights” that prioritizes the French language over the fundamental rights of non-francophone minority groups.   

To enforce these legislative changes, Section 111 of the bill would create designated “language inspectors” and provide them with the authority to “enter at any reasonable hour any place, other than a dwelling house, where an activity governed by [the Charter of the French Language] is carried on” without need for a warrant. The jurisdiction of language inspectors is so broadly and vaguely defined that the bill would provide them with even greater power than the police. Thus, Bill 96 would be another means of perpetuating the carceral system, as anyone caught breaking the law would be subject to the broken justice system. This sets a dangerous precedent: if the bill becomes law, abuse of this power could be extended to non-language related government agencies. 

The existence of these language inspectors itself fosters fear. A major concern raised during the QCGN hearings was that healthcare and major public service employees would be discouraged from communicating with people in English for fear of being reported to language inspectors and facing fines. Under Bill 96, the right to use the French language would “trump all other rights, including access to vital healthcare services.” The potential outcomes are disastrous if patients do not properly understand their diagnoses and treatments. Instances where informed consent is required for certain procedures could result in a heightened rate of medical malpractice. Medical racism is institutionalized in the healthcare system;  this added communication barrier is troubling for the future of healthcare in Quebec. Nakuset, director of the Native Women’s Shelter, warns that “the passage of Bill 96 will lead to needless deaths of Indigenous people.” 

The law, Nakuset explains, would further exacerbate existing structural barriers for Indigenous people to access legal and healthcare services. Many Indigenous communities adopted English as their primary European language following “the linguistic history of colonialism and religious missionary work that affected Indigenous people in this province;” many were sent to English residential schools. The Viens Commission, submitted in 2018 by the Coalition of English Speaking First Nations Communities in Quebec, provides an overview of the substantive obstacles for Indigenous communities to access health and social services. They face a “double barrier,” as francophone professionals are both unable to provide service in English and lack respect and understanding for appropriate Indigenous cultural protocols.

In touting French as the “official and common language of Quebec,” Bill 96 continues a history of assimilationist colonial violence as it privileges the status of settler language. While Legault and supporters of the bill claim to protect the “declining” French language and culture in Quebec, Nakuset argues that Indigenous communities have long since experienced linguistic and cultural loss: “what you fear is what we live, but it is not the same reality.” Indigenous youth are still being denied the right to speak their traditional languages – Legault cannot claim to protect and value culture as Quebec continues to block initiatives that favour reconciliation and Indigenous self-determination.

As many organizations have been excluded from the public hearings on Bill 96 that are currently taking place, the QCGN has called for individual submissions to the National Assembly’s Committee on Culture and Education. Additionally, the QCGN has created an online no2notwithstanding platform which will automatically generate and send letters concerning the bill to Legault, Jolin-Barrette, as well as your elected MNP and MP. Support and participate in Indigenous language revitalization initiatives, such as those offered by Native Montreal. You can also refer to the list compiled by the Foundation for Endangered Languages of programs and initiatives across Canada for language revitalization.