In a nondescript building on the northern stretch of Boulevard St-Laurent in Montreal’s Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough, staff and volunteers from the Welcome Collective are busy sorting through donations. Most of the people volunteering with the collective, which provides refugee claimants with support, are asylum seekers themselves, hailing from countries like Haiti and Colombia. Baby strollers, children’s clothing and boxes of kitchen utensils pile high in the warehouse, while next door, refugee claimants fill out online forms for French classes or financial aid, assisted by those who have been through the processes before.
The Welcome Collective helps those most challenged by the long and complicated process of claiming asylum: single moms, pregnant women, mothers with newborns, families with children, disabled people and the elderly. Registering kids in school and finding shelter, a job and affordable legal representation are just some of the hurdles that applicants must clear as they settle in their new country. Since last year, people seeking help from the Welcome Collective have faced another barrier, this one newly fabricated by the Quebec government. In June 2022, Bill 96, also known as An Act Respecting French, the official and common language of Québec, became law. The legislation is an amendment to Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, which in 1977 affirmed French as the official language of Quebec’s government and put it at the centre of work, education, communication and business in the province. As the language charter’s first major transformation since its inception, Bill 96’s hundred-page overhaul aims to stave off the supposed decline of French, building on a long history of language protectionism in Quebec.
The bill has gradually come into effect across many parts of life over the past year and a half: it limits the use of English in public services and in the courts, imposes tougher French requirements on businesses and municipalities, increases the number of French courses students in publicly funded colleges must take and caps the number of students who can attend English-language colleges. Most pertinently for non-francophone immigrants, like many of those who access services at the Welcome Collective, Bill 96 requires Quebec government employees to speak and write exclusively in French while on the job. The only exceptions are when dealing with immigrants during the first six months that they reside in Quebec, Indigenous people and “historic anglos”—Quebecers whose parents attended English schools in Canada and who thus have the right to English-language schooling themselves. After that six-month reprieve, immigrants are no longer eligible to receive services covered by Bill 96 in English, and must communicate solely in French, regardless of their proficiency.
Ultimately, it is immigration that lies at the heart of Bill 96. Like most other places in the West, Quebec has seen a record increase in immigration in the past few years, from 95,300 people in 2019 to nearly 150,000 in 2022 (the majority of whom were temporary workers, foreign students and asylum seekers). Though 80 percent of Quebec immigrants in 2017 were reported by Statistics Canada as being able to carry out a conversation in French, the proportion of Quebecers whose first language is French decreased by 1.5 percent from 2016 to 2021 as the province’s demographics changed. Premier François Legault has been clear that he fears Quebec will “become Louisiana,” a former French colony in which only a fraction of the population now speaks French, claiming last year that letting more than 50,000 immigrants settle in Quebec each year would be “suicidal.” The new legislation, Legault has asserted, is meant as a “solid, necessary and reasonable” measure to reject what his party, the conservative Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), sees as an existential threat to French culture.
The application of Bill 96, however, has been confusing, with a lack of clarity among service providers around how to enforce the new rules or ascertain who is eligible for services in languages other than French—currently effectively determined by an honour system and individual interpretation, with people being asked to make “good faith” statements about their language statuses. Over the past few years, the Welcome Collective has seen a considerable increase in families who are unilingual Spanish speakers, making accessing services in French difficult for many, and for some, entirely impossible. Flavia Leiva, a volunteer coordinator with the organization, tells me about a refugee applicant from Venezuela whose work permit had been accidentally mailed back to the government. When Leiva called Canada Post on his behalf, the federal employee refused to serve him in Spanish or to allow Leiva to serve as a translator, even though the employee herself spoke Spanish. Previously, federally regulated sectors in Quebec were not subject to the province’s language laws, but Bill 96 has brought them into the fold.
“It was the weirdest call I’ve ever made in my life,” says Leiva. “She kept insisting that she had to speak to him, but that speaking to him in another language [other than French] could get her reprimanded. It was awful.”
Ambiguity around who the law impacts, as well as how it takes effect, makes accessing public services in English or another language subject to the whims of the civil servant on the other end of the line. “If they’re open-minded and understand someone just arrived and can’t speak the language yet, they’ll try to communicate,” says Leiva. “But some people turn them away. It depends on their mood or whether they had their morning coffee.”
Media coverage about Bill 96 has overwhelmingly been focused on the bill’s impact on Quebec’s English-speaking community, but lost in the province’s centuries-long English-French divide is the fact that Bill 96 has created serious obstacles for the province’s most vulnerable: asylum applicants, immigrants, disabled people and Indigenous communities fighting for the preservation of their cultures. Many of them say that Bill 96 has made life harder for non-French speakers in Quebec, compromising their rights and wellbeing as they’re forced to jump through hoops and tackle increased bureaucracy. The legislation currently faces numerous lawsuits that are expected to drag on for years, brought forward by constitutional and human rights lawyers and community groups asserting that it creates inequality in access to education, justice and healthcare. Though Legault has referred to any claims that specific minorities are targeted by Bill 96 as disinformation, it’s clear that for affected communities, on-the-ground experiences are often characterized by confusion, frustration and prejudice.
Language panics are nothing new for Quebec. Bill 96 is intimately tied to its sense of pride as a francophone province resisting British colonization. The British acquisition of the French colony in the eighteenth century led to widespread oppression of French Canadians by an English-speaking ruling class, paving the way for a long history of cultural and linguistic tensions. By the twentieth century, a wealthy anglophone minority in Quebec dominated the industrial economy, with a significant wage gap between average francophone and anglophone citizens. The Catholic Church, which had governing powers over Quebec politics and education, actively stoked French-speaking Quebecers’ concerns about the decline of the French language and culture to position itself as a bastion against British influence. That same church often rejected immigrants from French Catholic educational institutions, who were then forced to enroll in the English school system and consequently integrated into the English-speaking community instead.
As immigration increased after the Second World War, fears about the dilution of French culture in Quebec escalated. By the 1960s, the Quiet Revolution, the social and cultural movement focused on increasing Quebec’s economic independence and secularization, resulted in a mass exodus of anglophones and an increased legislative focus on French. Bills throughout the sixties and seventies mandated French lessons in schools and French proficiency for immigrants, and in 1974, French was established as the official language of Quebec society with Bill 22. It was quickly followed in 1977 by the Charter of the French Language, or Bill 101, which expanded language provisions to cover the ″normal, everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business.”
While Bill 96 can be understood as the latest manifestation of Quebec striving for cultural protectionism and sovereignty, the political contexts and demographics of the anglophone community are very different than in the pre-Bill 101 world. The earning and education gaps between francophones and anglophones have long since closed, and today’s English speakers in Quebec often face higher poverty levels than francophones: 10 percent of English-speaking Quebecers live in poverty, as opposed to 5.8 percent of francophones, and anglophones are twice as likely to be low-income than French speakers. English speakers in the province are also far more diverse than in the twentieth century, with approximately one-third of Quebec’s immigrant and racialized minority populations identifying as anglophones. For these people, economic inequality is even sharper, with English-speaking racialized minorities and immigrants experiencing higher rates of unemployment and poverty than either francophones or non-minority anglophones.
It is true that as immigration has increased against low birth rates and an aging population, the province’s demographics have changed and become more diverse, and the proportion of Quebecers who speak predominantly French at home has declined. Data compiled by Statistics Canada predicts that the percentage of people speaking French at home will shrink to 75 percent of the province by 2036, down from 87 percent in 2016.
While such figures may appear bleak for the state of French preservation, the full picture is both more complex and less pessimistic. Researchers from the Université du Québec à Montréal noted in an interview with Global News in 2022 that the dire predictions of French decline fail to take into consideration the increasing rate of French-English bilingualism in the province. They pointed out that the way that statistics around language are gathered, often focusing on one’s mother tongue or the language most often spoken at home, can make it difficult for bilinguals to be officially counted as French speakers. Many people who do not speak French at home still have some level of fluency in the language, with 94.5 percent of Quebecers identifying as being able to carry out a conversation in French in 2016, according to Statistics Canada. The total number of people who speak mostly French at home actually increased from 6.4 million people in 2016 to 6.5 million in 2021, and although their proportion among the population has decreased as linguistic diversity has grown, French-English bilingualism and the use of French as well as another language at home have also risen, suggesting that many newcomers to the province are choosing to use French alongside their native language. That means that most allophones (people whose first language is neither French nor English) who speak their mother tongue at home can also speak French: a remarkable success for French integration.
Rather than celebrating this language acquisition as positive, the CAQ government insists on viewing immigrants as a liability, and the existence of other languages being spoken at home as proof of French’s decline. To many French preservationists, language is a zero-sum game. If you’re not speaking French at all times, you’re endangering it.
It is this insistence on nursing old grievances and viewing English in the province as a symbol of a historical dominant ruling class that characterizes the CAQ’s approach to French today. Mere weeks after Bill 96 passed, David Birnbaum, a Quebec Liberal and Member of the National Assembly, claimed to overhear the premier at a National Assembly debate say off-microphone, “Ah, c’est le West Island qui s’énerve,” (it’s the West Island that’s getting upset), a reference to Montreal’s historically wealthy and privileged anglophone community that lived in the west of Montreal. By drawing on these historical tensions, the CAQ ignores how the legislation impacts the province’s disparate non-francophone communities.
Many members of Indigenous communities in Quebec view Bill 96 as an extension of linguistic colonialism. Roughly 65 percent of Indigenous people in Quebec speak English as a first, second or third language. They are what have been referred to as “accidental anglophones,” speaking English because of British colonization. Indigenous languages have never been treated as equal to French or English in Canada; rather, they have been subjugated as part of a colonial project of assimilation, carried out through the 1876 Indian Act and the residential school system. Today, approximately 75 percent of Indigenous languages are endangered and 2021 census data reports that just 13.1 percent of the Indigenous population is able to conduct a conversation in an Indigenous language. These languages were not simply lost to time, but pushed aside by federal and provincial governments who have ignored pleas for their protection and revitalization.
Under Bill 96’s original formation, all students at English-speaking public colleges, including Indigenous students, are required to take three additional French classes (for a total of five) alongside their regular curriculum, creating barriers for students who were already at a disadvantage within the education system. According to 2016 census data, just under two-thirds of all First Nations youth complete high school, compared to 91 percent of the non-Indigenous population. Graduation rates are even lower for First Nations youth living on reserves. A University of Calgary study from 2021 described this education gap as “a marker of the colonial systems that have been designed to oppress Indigenous peoples,” as Indigenous students are often forced into education spaces with little consideration of or support for their culture and knowledge traditions, a problem unlikely to be solved by piling on extra French language requirements.
Many in Indigenous communities in Quebec fear these impositions will set them up to fail. Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, from the Kahnawà:ke Mohawk community south of Montreal, argues that Bill 96 severely penalizes Indigenous students by failing to recognize the unique challenges that these students face, as well as limiting their opportunities to learn their own languages. “We’re already speaking a foreign language,” says Sky-Deer. “We speak English because of our history.”
Indigenous communities were not consulted regarding the bill and feel blindsided by its demands, says Sky-Deer. In April, the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador and the First Nations Education Council took the Quebec government to court over the legislation, arguing that the bill infringed on their right to self-determination and self-government and impeded the teaching of their ancestral languages to their children. In an open letter to Premier Legault, Sarah Aloupa, the president of Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, the school board for Kativik in Northern Quebec, explains their goal isn’t to prioritize English over French, but to protect their own languages. “English is not a colonial language we wish to adopt,” she writes. “Indigenous languages are the languages we wish to speak, transmit, revitalize, nurture, and strengthen.”
Following the lawsuit the government announced plans in May to exempt Indigenous students from the educational requirements of Bill 96, but the lack of details on what the exemptions will look like or when they will come into effect has failed to assuage concerns, and Indigenous advocates like Sky-Deer remain apprehensive. It can be difficult to get Quebec to even acknowledge its part in Indigenous oppression: many in the province reject the concept that francophones have been colonizers toward Indigenous people in Quebec, since they themselves were colonized by the British. Quebec’s relationship with Indigenous communities has been fraught with tension and a lack of willingness by the government to recognize the impacts of colonialism and systematic racism. High-profile incidents such as the Oka Crisis in 1990, in which the Mohawk people fought the desecration of Kanehsatà:ke burial grounds in Oka, and a 2015 investigation which revealed long-standing abuse of Indigenous women in Val-d’Or at the hands of provincial police, have come to define the contemporary colonial relationship between Indigenous people and the province.
This well-established failure of Quebec in its treatment of Indigenous people underlies concerns about Bill 96’s real impact. While the legislation explicitly allows public employees to assist Indigenous individuals in English, a number of Indigenous people in Sky-Deer’s community and elsewhere have already reported being refused non-French-language service in the healthcare system since the passing of Bill 96. Indigenous people already face considerable risk of oppression and mistreatment in Quebec’s medical system: in 2020, a thirty-seven-year-old Atikamekw mother of seven named Joyce Echaquan died at a Joliette hospital after livestreaming staff members insulting and mocking her. A 2022 report from the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue concluded that there had been at least twenty-two cases of forced sterilization of Indigenous women in the Quebec healthcare system since 1980, with the most recent having occurred in 2019. That same year, a three-year inquiry conducted by former Superior Court justice Jacques Viens concluded that it was “impossible to deny” that Indigenous people face “systemic discrimination” in accessing public services in the province. As it stands, fewer than a third of the 142 calls to action suggested by the report have been implemented. Bill 96 comes at a time when Indigenous people have no reason to believe that they will be respected or safe within Quebec’s public systems, and yet they are being asked to trust that vaguely worded exemptions will sufficiently protect their rights.
Sky-Deer understands the desire of some francophones to protect French, noting that Indigenous people have fears about losing their traditional culture and language. “I don’t think Quebecers and First Nations people are so far off in what we want,” she says. “Protection of our language, protection of our identity, protection of our culture.” But the current execution of Bill 96 is only further entrenching a colonial dynamic that prioritizes French culture at the detriment of Indigenous people, whose claim to this land predates both French and British settlers. “They’ll say, ‘This is Quebec. You speak French here,’” says Sky-Deer. “But this is our traditional territory. You’re the visitors.”
Though much of Bill 96 is explicitly intended to assimilate immigrants into Quebec’s culture, critics have noted that it provides few resources with which to do so. The province does offer introductory French language and culture courses for new immigrants, called francisation, but high demand for the free government classes and financial barriers to paid classes are leaving many prospective French students without anywhere to turn. Under the law, immigrants are meant to have sufficiently mastered French to the point of being able to conduct all of their business in the language within six months, but many are waiting longer than that simply for a spot on a course. Although the government claims that nobody should be waiting for classes for more than two months, reports from immigrants paint a very different picture.
“I’ve had people who waited for a year,” says Leiva, the Welcome Collective employee. “Some were on waiting lists for eight months and then were suddenly dropped from the list to prioritize Ukrainian refugees. One of my claimants was so frustrated, he was practically in tears.” She notes that even just signing up for the French course is challenging for new immigrants, since the portal has to be accessed entirely in French.
Berenice Oritz (whose name has been changed for privacy) had been in Quebec for one full year when we spoke in September. She moved to Quebec in 2022 with her four children and two grandchildren to get away from the violence and crime of her home state of Michoacán, Mexico. Oritz was eager to jump into her new life in the province, but quickly became frustrated with the unavailability of the government’s French classes.
“I had to [pay for lessons] because I was never able to find any free classes,” she tells me in Spanish, as Leiva translates. “But I ran out of money so I couldn’t continue.” Though she has completed the first level of French classes (of a total of eight), she can no longer afford to keep paying for them, and instead sits on a waiting list for the francisation program. She can understand some French, but feels the timeline to communicate in French is unrealistic and puts an undue burden on newcomers to the province. When I ask her if she would feel comfortable signing a lease, enrolling her grandkids in French school or speaking to a government employee in French, all of which she is currently obligated to do, she emphatically shakes her head no.
Even for those who have a natural aptitude for language acquisition and are trying their hardest to learn French, six months is an absurdly short amount of time to do so, as conversational mastery of a language generally takes approximately one year of study, and fluency can take several years or more. A 2019 report commissioned by Quebec’s Immigration Ministry concluded as much, recommending that the government give immigrants time to settle in Quebec before starting on French courses, but the CAQ ignored its recommendations. If the francisation process is seriously intended to prepare immigrants for life in Quebec, including supporting a mastery of French, then the government should be focusing on facilitating access to the linguistic tools immigrants need to integrate and begin their new lives here. As it stands, the demands put upon immigrants are so unreasonable and punitive that they effectively deter people from being able to properly settle in Quebec—which, perhaps, was the intended outcome all along.
The status of healthcare and justice under Bill 96 has been unclear. Although Legault has specifically promised that both sectors will continue to serve people in English upon request, legal experts say that the exception clause as outlined in the bill is ambiguous and open to interpretation. The bill states that “using another language in addition to French” may be permissible “where health, public safety or the principles of natural justice so require,” which some critics believe will be taken as specific to emergencies and may not apply to day-to-day circumstances. Such claims were dismissed as “unfounded” by a government spokesperson last year, but actual reports from Quebec residents suggest otherwise.
Claudia Martina (whose name has been changed for privacy) regularly accesses the healthcare system to treat her ulcerative colitis, a chronic and progressive inflammatory bowel disease that requires medical appointments every six weeks and frequent interaction with the healthcare system. She came to Quebec from Nicaragua as a international student in 1975, and remained in the province to raise a family with her husband, a francophone Quebecer. She lives on Montreal’s South Shore, where her children attended school in French, and while she understands French, she doesn’t consider herself fluent. At home, the family mostly speaks English.
Since Bill 96 was introduced, she has noticed a significant change in the way she’s been treated by some healthcare employees, citing an incident in which she was yelled at because of her imperfect French and hung up on while attempting to make an appointment with her gastroenterologist. When she tried to schedule a colonoscopy, a diagnostic test she requires because her chronic disease increases her risk of colon cancer, the impatient hospital employee refused to speak with her in English.
“I make an effort to speak French, but when it comes to my health, I get nervous,” Martina says. Her concerns are not merely prompted by anxiety or a discomfort with French: Martina has a life-threatening allergy to an amino steroid used frequently in surgery and has experienced a near-death incident due to its effects, which resulted in a week-long stay in the ICU. Even outside of such severe situations, being able to effectively communicate with your doctor has a tangible effect on your health—a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal last year found that patients who receive care in their primary language have better overall care outcomes. “I need to communicate in English,” Martina says. “I need to know what’s going on with my body.”
When she told her husband what had happened, he sent a letter to CAQ politicians refuting their claims about continued and unhampered access to English services in the healthcare system. In response, the couple received a letter from the Ministry of Health and Social Services, informing them that English services were available in Ormstown, a municipality located an hour away from their home. The proffered solution made little sense to Martina, who did not wish to suddenly start making a two-hour round trip for routine healthcare that she had previously been able to access in her own community. All that had changed was that she was no longer able to request service in English. “My access to vital healthcare services now relies completely on luck and the person I end up speaking to on the other line,” she says.
Bill 96 stands to worsen the situation for vulnerable people by increasing the complexity of accessing care at a time when staff shortages and a lack of resources already plague the healthcare system. Elena Montecalvo, a resident of Laval, a city north of Montreal, has a twelve-year-old son, Giancarlo, with a form of autism that includes significant speech and intellectual delays and emotional regulation difficulties which can cause physical aggression. Though his family is bilingual, Giancarlo’s disability means that he only communicates in English. Last year, a psychiatrist recommended a change to his antipsychotic medication that could only be performed under medical supervision and admission to a hospital. But the only healthcare institution in the Montreal area with a specialized unit for autistic children that was equipped for such a program, the Rivière-des-Prairies Hospital, refused to take him on because he was enrolled in English-language schooling. The family was told that “anglophone clients” of this nature should be directed to the Montreal Children’s Hospital, but that institution doesn’t provide the service that Giancarlo needs.
Montecalvo offered to translate for her son, but the nature of psychiatric procedures does not allow for next-of-kin participation. Though the psychiatrist treating Giancarlo tried to appeal or find alternative arrangements, the answer remained the same: this particular hospital was the only one equipped for the program, and yet Montecalvo’s son was not eligible because of the language he speaks.
“This hospital is the only place where these services exist,” Montecalvo says. “We were obviously never advised when we signed him up for English school that we were forsaking any essential services.” She fears that barriers to essential medical services for Giancarlo will only increase as Bill 96 further distinguishes care on the basis of language, a concern that is shared by legal experts—Eric Maldoff, a Montreal-based lawyer and the chair of the Coalition for Quality Health and Social Services warned in an article for the Montreal Gazette that while Bill 96 does allow healthcare providers the option to serve people in English, it “strongly directs them to avoid exercising it.”
The experiences of Montecalvo and Martina led both women to join a lawsuit filed against the Quebec government in May 2023. Spearheaded by the Task Force on Linguistic Policy, a non-profit organization specifically formed to fight injustice in Quebec’s public services in the wake of Bill 96, the lawsuit alleges that Bill 96 is unconstitutional, stating that if non-francophones do not have access to public services, then the government is effectively creating two categories of citizens. In the case of Montecalvo and her son, their family’s struggle has been caused by a lack of English-language resources within a healthcare network that the Quebec government currently insists can guarantee services in English to those who want them—even prior to Bill 96, Giancarlo was assigned social workers and educators who did not speak English due to chronic staff shortages. The lawsuit argues that her son’s case stands to be further aggravated by Bill 96, which breaches disabled peoples’ equality rights under both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec provincial equivalent, and makes them “even more vulnerable to the healthcare system.” The lawsuit’s first hearing took place this past August, and the Task Force on Linguistic Policy hopes that a date for the trial will be set next year.
Those hoping for a legal intervention to protect their rights may be heartened by the partial success of a separate legal challenge brought against Bill 96 on the basis of its obfuscation of access to justice, led by human rights lawyer and constitutional law expert Julius Grey. Bill 96 initially required that all court documents be written in French and restricted bilingualism requirements when hiring new judges in Quebec, allowing them to only speak French.
Grey, alongside colleagues Michaëlla Bouchard-Racine and Vanessa Paliotti, filed the lawsuit in July 2022, a month after Bill 96 became law. One month later, the Superior Court of Quebec ordered a temporary suspension of the bill’s clauses that obliged people to produce and bear the costs of certified translations of proceedings written in English, a move which Grey hopes to make permanent. The suit has now been combined with another pending lawsuit filed by Grey on behalf of twenty-three bilingual Quebec municipalities, who claim the bill makes it much harder for them to offer English services to their residents. A court date has yet to be set for the legal case and the government has so far refrained from commenting on it.
For Grey, one of the most frustrating aspects of Bill 96 is the equation of impeding access to English-language services with protecting French culture. Allowing someone access to justice in their own language takes nothing away from French-speaking people’s access to justice, he notes. He argues that unless the suspension is made permanent, the legislation will create additional bureaucracy and administrative costs by forcing an unnecessary and time-consuming duplication of documents, while doing nothing to address an overwhelmed justice system already prone to delays. “That’s the remarkable thing about Bill 96,” Grey says. “Nobody benefits.”
Bill 96 is proving to be poorly conceived, highly restrictive and utterly confusing legislation that stands to reduce access to education, healthcare, justice and government services for many Quebecers. In its efforts to affirm that French is the centre of Quebec society, the government appears to have rushed to implement legislation that creates and strengthens barriers to services in a way that treats many Quebecers as acceptable collateral damage. Quebec currently faces enormous staffing and funding shortfalls in education, healthcare and the legal system, as well as many other services. The choice of Legault’s government to politically grandstand with language legislation and the demonization of immigrants might please the CAQ’s voting base, but it’s clear that it will do little to meaningfully improve the situation for the French language, and it certainly won’t improve the services that the entirety of the Quebec public relies upon.
French language protection is a laudable goal in a broad sense—no Quebecer wants to see the province’s unique linguistic identity disappear. But fighting any decline of French must involve more than making non-French-speaking Quebecers cross hurdles to access essential services, particularly when the province’s labour shortages necessitate the continued arrival of newcomers. Much like the rest of Canada, a low birth rate and aging population in the province have created a situation in which immigrants are necessary to fill jobs in Quebec, with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business releasing a study in March suggesting that Quebec is likely to face an annual shortfall of almost 18,000 immigrants relative to its labour needs over the next few years. In continually demeaning allophone and anglophone immigrants as a threat to Quebec culture, Legault stands to drive away people that the province desperately needs in order to prop up the institutions he claims they are eroding.
The context of these complaints also cannot be divorced from the specific diversity of Montreal, which is home to 88 percent of all of Quebec’s immigrants and 80 percent of its anglophones. Legault’s government has often been criticized for specifically targeting Montreal with its policies, while support for the CAQ is weaker on the island than anywhere else in the province. In recent months, further conflict between Quebec’s anglophone community and the government has been stoked by the plan to increase tuition fees for out-of-province students, the vast majority of whom study in Montreal, ostensibly to “protect French.” Negotiations from the universities that suggested leaving tuition as is but increasing French classes for anglophone students have been rejected, leaving many to wonder whether the goal is francisation or discrimination. The preservation of Quebec’s identity should not be at the expense of Montreal’s plurality and diversity, or the overall sense of belonging for Quebecers at large. The successful long-term linguistic and cultural integration of immigrants will not be achieved by legislation that creates Kafkaesque bureaucratic traps or increases inequality of access to healthcare and justice for the most vulnerable.
Steamrolling through people’s human rights isn’t the way to protect a language. If we want people to immigrate here, adopt French and successfully integrate as contributing members of this society, we need to not only hand them the tools to do so, but hand them over with kindness and generosity of spirit, allowing time for these transitions to take place. The goal should be to encourage and support people to speak French, not to punish those who don’t yet speak it. Disincentivizing the ever-increasing numbers of allophones who come to Quebec from falling in love with the language certainly will not help French culture thrive. ⁂
Toula Drimonis is a Montreal-based journalist and writer with weekly opinion columns in the Montreal Gazette and Cult MTL. She has worked in television, radio and print. In 2022, she published her first book, We, the Others: Allophones, Immigrants, and Belonging in Canada. Her second book will be released in 2024.