Advocates for Quebec immigrants want essential services left out of Bill 96

Some researchers and people who work with immigrants want Quebec to amend its proposed language reform law. They say the province's plan to communicate exclusively in French with anyone who's lived in the province more than six months will cause human rights and public health issues.

Academics and social workers say language reform law unfairly targets people new to the province

Jill Hanley is a professor at McGill's School of Social Work and scientific director of the SHERPA research institute which studies accessibility to health services for immigrants and minority groups. She says Quebec's Bill 96 will prevent people who are new to Quebec from getting essential services. (Submitted by Jill Hanley)

Over 20 academics and people who help newcomers get settled in Quebec are calling on the province to exempt essential public services from Bill 96, its controversial proposed law on language reform.

"It's going to stop people from getting the services they need," said Jill Hanley, a professor at the McGill University School of Social Work.

Hanley is one of several professors, researchers and service providers who work with immigrants and refugees and have submitted their concerns to the government. They're also drafting an open letter that will be published next week.

The group says it's especially worried about a provision in the bill that says after immigrants have been in the province for six months, all government communication with them will be in French.

"We think that's a human rights problem, that's a public health problem, that's a social problem," said Hanley.

Quebec says the goal of Bill 96 is to increase the use of French in public and in the workplace and it does make exceptions for "historic" anglophones — anyone who went to school in Canada in English — and Indigenous people, when it comes to receiving services.

The bill was tabled in May after studies showed the use of French declining across the province, particularly in Montreal, and uses the notwithstanding clause to prevent court challenges.

The bill has been the subject of several hearings at the National Assembly and is still under review but has led to a lot of pushback, mostly from the English-speaking community.

Not enough time

Garine Papazian-Zohrabian, an associate professor in educational psychology at the Université de Montréal, recently  completed a study on the francisation of immigrants. She says she's concerned about those who are most vulnerable: immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers who come with "heavy baggage" and often little money or education. 

"Six months is not enough," she said. "All the studies show, the more they have difficulties, traumas, losses — the more they have adjustment difficulties, the less they are able to learn."

Papazian-Zohrabian says learning a new language often isn't the main priority for people who come to Quebec to escape dangerous living situations. She points to the hundreds of recent immigrants from Afghanistan, who left after the Taliban took control of their country.

"They are stressed, they lost family, they lost friends, they are experiencing grief, post-traumatic disorder, they must adjust," she said.

"Integration is not just related to learning the language. First of all it's feeling accepted, feeling they have a place in this country, feeling they are safe."

"I think that there's some oversight in this bill, maybe without the government's intention," said Hanley. "It actually blocks access to social, health and economic rights for the most vulnerable people."

Garine Papazian-Zohrabian is an associate professor in educational psychology at the Université de Montréal. She says new immigrants to Quebec are often fleeing difficult and dangerous situations and need more than six months to learn basic French. (Submitted by Janet Cleveland)

Health and social services not included, says ministry

Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who is also the minister responsible for the French language, has insisted Bill 96 will not touch Quebec's health and social services law. In a statement to CBC, his office said the proposed bill will have "no impact" on access to health services and will offer other exceptions when it comes to safety.

Jolin-Barrette's office says a "pillar of the reform" proposed in Bill 96 is to have the province set a high standard. It says under the new rules, Quebec's bureaucracy will communicate with immigrants in French from the get go, with a bit of flexibility for specific situations that require the use of a language other than French during their first six months in the province.

Right now, the Justice Ministry says, Quebec interacts with immigrants in languages other than French upon request for years, and sometimes for their entire life. It's a situation, the ministry says, that doesn't encourage integration into French-speaking society.

The ministry says it understands the time it takes to learn French is unique to each individual and, under the proposed bill, a new francisation program will be created to offer a more simplified, personalized approached that is supposed to be better adapted to immigrants. 

Language screening

Hanley says the law will create what she calls an "absurdity of procedures." She gives the example of a migrant farm worker who wants to report a workplace accident and only speaks English or Spanish.

"How is the person on the other side supposed to determine whether or not they have the right to speak with them in English?" she asked. "How's a farm worker supposed to convince the worker that they have the right to speak in Spanish?"

"You'd have to be doing almost a screening on what right the person has to speak what language before you start to give them the service."

"It's ridiculous, it's not going to work. It's going to create problems in emergency rooms, it's going to create problems in government waiting access online."

The Justice Ministry says it's always open to ideas on how to better protect and promote the French language in Quebec.

It says a detailed study of the proposed Bill 96 is still to come and the government will share how it intends to proceed with the bill in due course.

With files from Lauren McCallum and CBC's Daybreak