Quebec’s Bill 96 with its stricter French-language rules is deeply worrying to the Jewish community

Bill 96, the Quebec government’s sweeping new legislation to strengthen the use of French, is being widely denounced by Jewish community members as violating the rights of not only anglophones, but all citizens.

An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Quebec, which became law on May 24, is the most transformative reform since the adoption of Bill 101, the Charter of the French language, in 1977. Its densely written 97 pages contain changes affecting businesses, the judicial system, post-secondary education, health care, and immigration which are to be enacted over three years.

Tabled one year ago by the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), while the province was still focused on the surging COVID pandemic, the bill invokes the notwithstanding clause to pre-empt constitutional challenges and override the federal and Quebec charters.

“The law is an abusive use of the notwithstanding clause—in a blanket fashion—and furthers a worrisome trend in the erosion of minority rights in Quebec,” said Marvin Rotrand, national director of the B’nai Brith Canada League for Human Rights. “We urge the federal government to be vigilant.”

In September, a Jewish lawyers’ association warned that the bill threatens the civil rights of non-francophones.

“Seldom has proposed legislation impacted access to justice, equality before the law, and the most fundamental principles underpinning our legal system to the extent that Bill 96 does,” the Lord Reading Law Society stated.

Lord Reading contends that the bill “provides a state-sanctioned legal and protected basis for discrimination against those whose common language is other than French.”

It is particularly concerned by the search and seizure powers granted to inspectors of the Office de la langue française du Québec, who can commandeer computers and phones on the basis of a complaint, even if anonymous, and without a warrant to verify compliance.

Lord Reading believes the law institutionalizes “a form of secret denunciations of neighbours or colleagues that has no place in a free and democratic society.”

Lord Reading also points out hindrances English speakers will face in the courts due to the lack of guarantee to be heard in their language and the necessity of filing documents in French, with translation at their own cost.

Lawyer Eric Maldoff, chair of the Coalition for Quality Health and Social Services, believes the law introduces serious obstacles to the delivery of safe and effective care.

“Because there is no explicit exemption of the health and social services system, Bill 96 subjects all sectors of Quebec’s civil administration—from driver’s license bureaus to municipal permits offices to your local nursing home—to the identical obligation to be ‘exemplary,’ to use exclusively French in written and oral communication with their clients, subject to exceptions for certain categories of people and circumstance.”

Sheila Kussner, widely regarded as the doyenne of volunteers in the health care field and founder of the Hope & Cope cancer support group 40 years ago, decried the bill’s threat to access to care in English in an opinion piece in the Montreal Gazette a few months ago.

“Despite the government’s protestations to the contrary, if enacted, this drastic legislation seems likely to decimate the English-speaking community and cause untold harm to the French-speaking community,” Kussner wrote.

Last month, the Côte St. Luc city council unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the government to scrap the bill and “meaningfully consult with the English-speaking community” and constitutional experts before putting forward any language amendments.

The council says the law jeopardizes its bilingual status. Residents might not be able to be served in English and municipal employees, even if they are anglophones, will have to speak to each other in French only. Municipalities face “draconian penalties,” the resolution states, including cuts to provincial funding.

The resolution also raises the alarm over the bill’s effect on English CEGEPs, claiming the cap on enrolment spells their inevitable decline.

The sole Jewish member of the National Assembly, Liberal David Birnbaum of D’Arcy McGee, which encompasses Côte St. Luc, faced a backlash from many anglophones when he, along with fellow MNA Hélène David, proposed an amendment to the bill which actually went further than the CAQ intended: requiring students at English CEGEPs to take three core courses in French, not French as a second language (FSL).

After the Liberals withdrew the idea and pleaded with the government, the final bill was changed to make students at English CEGEPs take three additional FSL courses on top of the two already mandated.

The Liberals, the official opposition, voted against the bill on May 24, as did the Parti Québécois, although the latter did so because it feels the law does not go far enough in protecting French.

Mount Royal MP Anthony Housefather has been outspoken in his criticism of the bill, unlike his government, particularly of the CAQ’s use of the notwithstanding clause.

He says the bill diminishes the fundamental rights of English speakers.

“For the first time in Quebec history, Bill 96 links access to government services in English to eligibility to attend English schools. This means hundreds of thousands of English-speaking Quebecers can no longer obtain services in English, including many whose mother tongue is English,” he says.

(Those who have at least one parent who attended an English school in Canada are eligible for English education in Quebec.)

Housefather also is disturbed by the new requirement that immigrants, even though whose first language is English, will after six months not be able to receive government services in that language.

Rotrand said just determining who is a “historic anglophone” is unclear, and that may have implications for earlier Jewish immigrants as well. For example, there are a large number of elderly Russian immigrants who may find it difficult to receive services in English, which they generally know better than French.

The new demands on even small businesses are “onerous” and limits on English CEGEP enrolment and more stringent French requirements all bode ill for the community, he believes.

Rotrand is also very concerned by the bill’s effect on a growing problem for the community: attracting rabbis from outside CanadaB who are English speakers. Bill 101 allowed the children of such clerical officials to attend English schools for up to three years, with the possibility of an extension, Rotrand said.

“Our reading of the bill is that that is now reduced to two years, with no extension,” he said.  On top of a worldwide shortage of pulpit rabbis, the chances of synagogues here finding new spiritual leaders are getting slimmer, he thinks.

Taken altogether, Rotrand wonders what the longer-term impact will be on an aging community. “We don’t want a repeat of the exodus that took place after the 1970s. Will young people continue to see their future in Quebec?”