The protest, organized by groups representing the county’s English-speaking community, sought to send a strong message to the majority government that the legislation in its current form was not acceptable.
We say to the prime minister [François] Legault and his CAQ . government [that] “We are Quebecers,” said Marilyn Jennings, president of the Community Groups Network of Quebec.
“We cherish and support the French, we want to see them protected and promoted, but not on our backs, not on our fundamental rights.”
Bill 96 was introduced a year ago, is in the final stages of approval and is expected to be voted on in the National Assembly later this month. Several changes will be made to the 1977 French Language Charter, also known as Bell 101, by strengthening the position of French in “all spheres of society”.
Despite the scorching heat, protesters took off from Dawson College at 10:30 a.m. and walked less than two kilometers to the Montreal offices of Quebec President François Legault at the corner of Sherbrooke Street and McGill College Avenue.
Signs reading “Is there a place for me in Quebec?” “Protecting the French, but not at the expense of English rights” was seen among the crowd.
While many protesters agreed that French should be protected in the province, they said the law would restrict access to education, health care and justice for those whose first language is not French.
Indigenous activist says: ‘An extra burden on our people’
Among the proposed changes to the charter is requiring newcomers to Quebec to receive government services exclusively in French after six months in the province – which many have described as an unrealistic timetable for learning a new language.
An amendment to the bill was also recently passed that would require students in English CEGEPs to take three additional French-language courses – with no exemption for Indigenous students.
Kenneth Deer of the Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk) Kahnawake Nation called this colonial and insensitive move.
“We struggle to keep our language alive,” he said. “So Bill 96 is putting an extra burden on our people.”
“Our priority is for our Mohawk people to learn.”
In order to ensure that French is “the official and lingua franca of Quebec,” the government will also impose new obligations regarding the use of the French language in companies with 25 to 49 employees, limit the use of English in courts and public services, grant search and seizure powers without an order A court has appealed to the Quebec language regulator and is under registration in English CEGEPs to prevent more students from French language schools from switching to Stream English.
Quebec Liberal Party leader Dominique Anglade joined the protest on Saturday, saying there are better ways to promote the French language than to create division among Quebecers.
“We are well aware of the importance of the French language, the importance of protecting it, and promoting it,” Engled said.
“But we need to do it in a way that is inclusive of all Quebecers, and that’s not what Bell 96 is doing right now.”
The minister in charge of the French language in Quebec, Simon-Jolin-Barrett, strongly defended the Bell 96 in the face of criticism, as did Legault, who described it as reasonable, balanced and necessary “to ensure adequate protection of the French language.”
The government preemptively invoked the provision though, which will limit the possibility of a legal challenge against the law.
Despite Legault’s reassurances that the rights of English speakers will be protected, Dawson’s college student Kiana Lalavie is concerned about how additional French courses in English will affect international students and newcomers to Quebec.
“They don’t have English rights,” she said. “Their grades in the R will drop, their life chances will be limited and they will not be able to enter the programs of their choice.”