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September 18, 2023

Bill 96: Words from an Unknown Quebecer

By Abhishek Ghosh

Words from an Unknown Quebecer

Bill 101 (or, the Charter of the French Language) was introduced by the Parti Quebecois government, led by then-Premier René Lévesque. It was passed into law on August 26, 1977. The main purpose of this Bill was to make French a commonly used language of Quebec. This law was quite a jolt to anglophones, leading to many riots, rigid oppositions, and mass exodus. Forty-four years after, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) has tabled legislation to reform Bill 101 in the form of Bill 96. The main objective is to protect the French language in Quebec and prevent in decline. Despite the positives, I have accepted this new reform to Quebec's new language legislation with a pinch of salt. The 100-page document reflects the vested interest of politicians with strategies lacking depth and farsightedness.

On the positives, there will be resources available to newcomers to master the French language. There will be many opportunities to offer free French language to all. And by all, I don't just mean immigrants. Bill 96 also opens a new political front with the federal government. It proposed a unilateral insertion of two new articles into the Constitution Act of 1867, i.e. recognizing Quebec as a nation, and having French as the only official and common language of Quebec.

On the flip side, the bill takes some unknown ventures which could be potentially meaningless to a common Quebecer. For instance, the inclusion of "clear predominance" of French commercial signs. Will this have an impact on the daily lives of a Quebecer? Expanding Bill 101 to federal jurisdiction is redundant as many large businesses and/or corporations already comply with Bill 101 and possess the required French certification.

The idea of the distribution of documents in French only, after six months to immigrants, is unacceptable. This may overwhelm new immigrants upon arrival to Quebec and create a fear to embrace the beauty of the French language. No one would love the French language being forced on them. And most won't master the language in six months. And here I say why. A study by the US Department of State's Foreign Service Institute showed that adult native English speakers took 600 classroom hours to achieve the DLPT level 3 (which is around a CEFR C1 or C2) for the French language. And now, you may need to chip in extra hours for assignments.

One dangerous move is to cap English CEGEPs. This will allow the privileged Francophones to attend English CEGEPs. Children from rural Quebec (which is largely unilingual) will have limited access to English and hence, limited horizon. A lot of young French want to get exposed to English for good reasons. They also have nothing against the French.

Bill 101 overlooks some concerning statistics of the province. This is problematic. Over half of Quebecers are functionally illiterate. This means they can read and process simple text but fail to deconstruct complex pieces. About 47 percent of Quebecers between the ages of 16 and 65 were considered functionally illiterate in 2003. This figure ramped up to 53 percent by 2013. These people are prone to low-income generation, higher rates of unemployment leading to a poorly informed society and a proneness to increased occupational hazards.

Quebec presents some of the leading institutions for higher education such as McGill University and University de Montreal. Conversely, Quebec has the lowest graduation rates in Canada and an increase in the number of unqualified teachers. The province needs to focus on improving French education by not merely severing the ties to the English language and English institutions. Also, the Bill needs to consider the indigenous language of the province tied to its vast multilingual and multicultural history. Forceful retention of French at the cost of limiting English may cause an out-of-province migration of anglophones and allophones. To this end, Quebec will lose a host of its talent pool and businesses (as it already did in the past) leading to scarcity of human capital and unemployment issues.

I favor the Bill 101 and see the value of protecting the French language in Quebec owing to its fragile existence in North America. I can't ignore the fact that English is the language of business with significant outreach and utility. Usage of French should not be measured at the cost of what languages are spoken at home. Personally, if I can speak French in public and still speak Bengali or Hindi at home, the Government has no reason to intervene. After all, Canada is multicultural.

In the 21st century, Quebec needs to accommodate its dynamic population with an open mind. Promotion of the French language can be met using strategic approaches and rational educational reforms. This will create affinity towards the French language and hence, acceptance. Unilingual ambassadors and blinkered laws will only fail to protect the French language amidst the existence of a multilingual reality.

Article © Abhishek Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-08-30
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