It’s no secret that Bill 96, Quebec’s new French-language law, has created an abundance of turmoil in the province — have it be among English-rights groups, health care professionals, educational experts and many others.
Over the last few months, numerous experts have questioned the bill’s legality and wondered if there’s a better way to protect the French language without antagonizing others living in the province.
Kathy Korakakis, president of the English Parents’ Committee Association (EPCA) laments her organization, as well as many others, has tried to reason with the provincial government, to no avail.
"We’ve said things to them, but they don’t listen," she said. "When you table things like Bill 96, where it impacts so many fundamental rights and freedoms, there are all these experts [willing to share their ideas.]"
She argues politicians are not experts in the fields of education, health care or even language: "they are just popular people that people elected."
"When you have real experts telling you, ‘Hey, this, that and the other thing,’ and you’re not listening, you have to figure out why that is," Korakakis said. "There’s another agenda there. This is not about protecting the French language."
Eva Ludvig, Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) interim president, stresses all Quebecers recognize and agree that the French language needs to be protected — it just needs to be done in a positive way "rather than through punishment and restriction" via public policy.
"They’ve got it all backwards, upside-down, their attitude towards learning languages altogether," she said. "I understand the concerns of francophone Quebecers on maintaining and protecting their language. I know it’s vulnerable, it is a minority language in North America, but it is an important language — French is one of the top languages in the world, not only in speaking but in literature."
She notes the English community is actually the one that introduced French immersion classes in the early 1960s.
"Not because of force, but because they recognized the importance of the French language," she said. "That set the stage for schools volunteering to introduce French before it became obligatory."
Korakakis points to one way to enhance the French language in Quebec: strengthen it among the English-speaking community — again, in a positive way.
"The way you can do it is by strengthing elementary and high school French," she said. "From our standpoint, our kids are fine, but when you start saying, ‘oh, you have to pass a biology or science course in French,’ it’s a whole other thing."
Korakakis admits there is always room for improvement when teaching French in English schools, such as opening up more spaces for immersion and bilingual classes.
However, one specific drawback stands in the way of that happening.
"Our schools are underfunded when there are expansion projects. We don’t get the money; French schools get them," she said. "With the [political] environment they’ve created, it’s the opposite — nobody wants to learn."
Korakakis insists a lot of English schools do promote Quebec culture, "where you listen to songs and music," but that enthusiasm wanes once children graduate and enter the workforce.
"When you look at the biggest employer, it’s the government, and 99.9 per cent of people who work there are just white francophones. That’s a problem," she said. "This problem is so much more than just let’s get more culture classes."
Ludvig adds the government should put its money where its mouth is and stop creating division between francophones and non-francophones.
"Putting money in the education system is extremely important; supporting small businesses…find ways to provide language training to help small businesses," she said. "You don’t learn a language in six months; they need to give time and recognition and positive reinforcement to newcomers and understand the reality of newcomers in Quebec: you need time to adapt, it’s normal; don’t make them feel guilty."
For its part, the Quebec government insists Bill 96 should not affect a person’s right to receive, for example, adequate health care.
However, it has remained vague on what that actually means.
Last month, the head of Quebec’s College of Physicians stated in a strongly worded letter that the bill is "causing confusion and concern, both among the public and among doctors and health professionals."
In the letter, Dr. Mauril Gaudreault argues, "the text of the law, as formulated, leaves grey areas and creates reason for concern about future patients’ options to converse in the language of their choice with the person providing them with care."
Chaos also reigned regarding how the bill could apply to educational institutions, with many questions surrounding enrolment caps for English-language CEGEPs and additional French-language courses.
Following its royal assent, the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) filed a Superior Court application calling for a judicial review of Bill 96.
Its main argument: the law violates the Canadian Constitution by infringing on the right to equal access to the law in Canada’s two official languages.
Other legal challenges could follow.
The bill also gives new immigrants, including refugees, six months to master the language before using it for official purposes, with some exceptions for health care and justice.
In addition — and among many other amendments — the government recently admitted that birth, death and marriage certificates will now only be issued in French.
Ludvig insists the English community has done its best over the last few years to extend an olive branch to the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government.
"Who has the power here? The one with the power is the one that will make a difference. The people in the government, the majority, I think they need to extend their hand," she said, adding Premier François Legault has never with members of the English community to discuss their input and solutions to the language debate. "Bill 96 does so little to protect French. It targets English speakers, immigrants; it’s not how can we make French more attractive?"
Ludvig laments that as Bill 96 is slowly implemented into all facets of Quebec policy and society, "we are going to see what a mess we’ve created."
"The worst, to me, is the division it has created in Quebec society," she said. "It’s marginalized all minorities and it makes us feel like outsiders. It shows a lack of respect for the contributions of English speakers and their importance in the province."
Korakakis says she’s hopeful that the next generation of leaders will see that the best way to protect and encourage French learning isn’t to take rights away from non-francophones while stunting a francophone person’s ability to learn multiple languages.
"For the first time in my life, I just want to leave. I don’t want to stay," she said. "And I know I’m not the only one."
In the wake of Bill 96 becoming law, QCGN has created a survey to hear from people who have been directly impacted by the new law.
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