What to expect at Bill 96 hearings: architects of Bill 101 to speak, Liberals ask CAQ not to truncate debate

Even before the language debate resumes next week in the National Assembly, Dominique Anglade's Liberals say they fear the Legault government wants to gag the opposition by forcing through Bill 96.

Right off the bat, therefore, the Liberal opposition plans to ask the government to commit immediately to abandoning its right to invoke closure on the controversial bill on the status of French in Quebec, which will be the subject of a wide consultation in the coming weeks.

In an open letter sent to certain media this week, the Liberal spokesperson on language issues, MP Hélène David, warns the minister responsible for the French language, Simon Jolin-Barrette, against the temptation to cut the debate short in order to impose its views on language.

“If the CAQ agrees to treat the issue of the French language seriously and without partisanship, as we believe is necessary, it must commit today to giving up imposing debate closure to force the adoption of its bill,” wrote the member for Marguerite-Bourgeoys in the letter.

“This would set the stage for calm and constructive consultations, for the good of all of Quebec.”

The hybrid consultation, which will take place both by videoconference or in person, should allow, starting next Tuesday and until October 7, the testimony of about 50 people and organizations interested in commenting on the place of French in Quebec and the laws needed to ensure its future.

An ambitious plan to upgrade Bill 101, the previous law adopted in 1977 by the government of René Lévesque, Bill 96 aims to strengthen the status of French in Quebec by making changes in several areas.

It’s a flagship bill for the Legault government during its mandate. It’s also undoubtedly a piece of legislation intended, like Law 21 on secularism, to confirm the strong nationalist identity and character of the CAQ government.

Given the importance of this issue to the government, however, Jolin-Barrette appears unwilling to let the opposition get the better of him by imposing its vision.

That has led to the official opposition’s fear of the use of an invoked closure of debate, which would cut off legislative discussion, whenever it sees fit during the clause-by-clause study which will follow the public consultation on the document.

FOUR PREVIOUS DEBATES ENDED BY CLOSURE UNDER CAQ

In the past, the Legault government hasn’t hesitated to invoke closure, a practice that’s in principle meant to be exceptional.

It has done so on four occasions to force the adoption of certain bills, in the face of an upset opposition: Bill 40, on the abolition of school boards, Bill 21, during immigration reforms and for the deregulation of Hydro-Quebec tariffs.

Premier François Legault also flirted with the idea of using the clause to end debate on Bill 61, the stimulus bill with a mass of infrastructure projects, but he finally gave up on that idea.

“The protection of the French language must bring us together, not divide us,” argues David, saying she expects the government to take into account the proposals and amendments tabled by the opposition.

In the spring, the Liberals presented a list of 27 proposals intended to protect and promote the French language, “while respecting the rights of the English-speaking minority.”

David raised questions in her letter about certain aspects of Bill 96, in particular the controversial issue of French-speakers’ access to English CEGEPs. The government has chosen not to extend the application of Bill 101 to CEGEPs.

The Liberals say they would also like to see English CEGEP students required to take three French courses to obtain their Diploma of College Studies (DEC).

They also ask why the government chose to apply the notwithstanding clause to its entire bill, to protect it from any legal challenge.

“What are the articles considered by government lawyers to be contrary to the charters?” asked David in her letter, saying she wants the opposition to be perceived as an ally and not “an adversary.”

Asked this week about the upcoming consultation, Minister Jolin-Barrette said he will be “open-minded,” possibly ready to improve his bill, but he was adamant about his refusal to extend Bill 101 to CEGEPs

“The bill preserves the rights of the anglophone community and its institutions, as well as the rights of Indigenous communities,” he said.

“And certain rights are even added specifically for anglophone rights-holders, especially access to CEGEP in English on a priority basis.

“So, this is a moderate bill, but it’s a necessary one to protect the French language,” the minister said at a press briefing.

He recalled that at the time of the adoption of Bill 101, also known as the Charter of the French language, in 1977, “there were criticisms, too, but everyone recognizes the importance of Bill 101 today, and here we have reached a new stage where we must ensure that Bill 101 is improved to respond to today's reality.”

He added that “French is in decline and this decline must be halted.”

SOME ARCHITECTS OF BILL 101 WILL SPEAK

Among the distinguished people invited to participate in the hearings is sociologist Guy Rocher, now professor emeritus of the University of Montreal and one of the architects of Bill 101 in 1977, when he sat in the first PQ government of René Lévesque.

The 97-year-old Rocher will appear in committee on September 22.

In recent years, he has said he had great admiration for Camille Laurin, the father of Bill 101, and that he wanted Simon Jolin-Barrette to follow in his footsteps by showing courage. He also spoke in favour of the controversial idea of extending Bill 101 to CEGEP, an avenue that the minister didn’t follow.

Some former PQ elected officials will also come to express their point of view, including former minister Louise Beaudoin, who said in May that with Bill 96 Quebec was “far from Camille Laurin, his audacity and his courage.”

She nevertheless sees several interesting measures in the bill, namely the role of the state in setting an example, the recognized right to learn French, and the extension of francization to businesses with 25 to 49 employees.

Another former PQ elected official, an actor and former member for Borduas, Pierre Curzi, is expected to reaffirm that Bill 96 doesn’t have the teeth to francize immigrants and ensure the future of Montreal in French.

The author of the book Why Law 101 is a Failure, Frédéric Lacroix, believes that French has continued to decline in Quebec, despite more than four decades of application of Law 101. He will explain why to parliamentarians, and how to reverse the trend, he says.

One language expert, the author, statistician and University of Ottawa professor Charles Castonguay, is among those who have documented for years the slow decline of French in Quebec. He also says he believes that Bill 96 does not go far enough to raise the bar and increase the conversion of immigrants to the French-speaking majority.

Another expected language, demographer Marc Termote, has expressed concerns about the chances that Bill 96 will have a positive influence on the future of French in Montreal.

Two other demographers will come to testify in parliamentary committee, as well: Patrick Sabourin and Guillaume Marois.

Several legal experts, particularly on constitutional questions, will provide their insight, including Patrick Taillon, from Laval University, Jean Leclair, specialist in constitutional law and Indigenous law, Daniel Turp, professor at the University of Montreal, and Benoît Pelletier, former Liberal minister and now full professor at the University of Ottawa.

Pelletier said he welcomed one of the aspects of the bill which, despite its “limited scope,” caused much ink to flow, namely the proposal to include in the Canadian constitution the fact that Quebecers form a nation and that French constitute the only official language of Quebec and the common language of this nation.

Bill 96 is a weighty document comprising some 200 clauses.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Sept. 16, 2021.