Bill 96: message from the mayor of Westmount

On Thursday, May 13, the Quebec government tabled Bill 96, “an act respecting French, the official and common language of Quebec,” which proposes changes to the 44-year-old Charter of the French Language, commonly known as Bill 101. Its scope is broad and far-reaching, as it proposes changes to the Canadian Constitution, the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Civil Code of Quebec, among other statutes.

Along with the pandemic, I expect this Bill will dominate our public discourse for the remainder of the year as it touches almost every aspect of our lives, from education to health and social services, our courts, our businesses and of course, our municipalities. The debate over the coming months is about the Quebec we wish to build together, and I encourage everyone to participate with passion and civility. Let’s do our best to listen to each other, understand each other’s fears and aspirations, and build consensus.

Lawyers and experts, including our own staff, are still reviewing the 100-page Bill and its 200 articles. Therefore, I am not in a position to address all of its elements now or to provide you with detailed conclusions and recommendations. But I would like to offer some initial views from the perspective of City Council.

Prior to the tabling of the legislation, the Quebec government had suggested that it was considering changing the status of the 90 municipalities that are designated bilingual in the province. What they are now proposing is less draconian than anticipated. The Bill proposes taking away the bilingual status of any municipality that does not have a population of at least 50 percent English speakers. I should point out that it is my understanding that the definition of English-speaking Quebecer is very narrow. However, cities and boroughs that do not meet the 50% threshold and want to preserve their status can adopt a resolution to that effect.

So, the good news is that Westmount will maintain its bilingual status. We will provide bilingual tax bills, newsletters and other official city documents. We can also post bilingual signs. On the other hand, my understanding is that all communication with the Quebec government will now be in French only.

While the City will not be front and centre in the debate related to education, we are home to public and private schools and Cegeps. We want all of these institutions to be healthy and strong. We take to heart the concerns raised by leaders of Dawson and other Cegeps about the impact on them of measures such as capping the total number of students allowed in English-language CEGEPs at 17.5 percent of the total provincial CEGEP population, corresponding to the same level as last year. We also are concerned about enrolment at our primary and secondary schools if the government limits the number of years children of foreign temporary workers or international students can attend school in English, at three years.

The Bill’s goal is to make French the language of work to the greatest extent possible. Francization rules are extended not only to federally regulated businesses, but also to companies with 25 or more employees. And when employers — or even courts — want to make bilingualism a criterion for hiring, they will have to go to the trouble of proving that the job in question truly requires it.

PME’s in Westmount, like elsewhere in the province, have been struggling to cope with the pandemic. Our focus in the coming months will be on helping retailers on Greene Avenue and in the Victoria Village rebound from the devastation of the past 15 months. In this context, we question the government’s proposal to add new administrative burdens to their challenges while adding new layers of bureaucracy to government.

As I said at the outset, this Bill is about the type of Quebec we want to build together. What I find most troubling about the government’s approach is its disregard for human rights. The text of Bill 96 states that the provisions of the law will apply “despite sections 1 to 38” of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

The Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms has long been an object of pride in Quebec, and my fervent wish is that in the end, all Quebecers will respond to Bill 96 with the values of the Charter front and centre in their minds.

We will continue to share information with you about the Bill and its potential impact in the weeks ahead. I urge everyone to take the time to understand its orientation and provisions and to join the debate.

All of our voices need to be heard.

Christina M. Smith
Mayor of the City of Westmount