Under language reform, some Quebec municipalities will lose bilingual status unless they ask to keep it
Municipal leaders can protect bilingual status even if fewer than half of residents speak English
Under the Legault government's language reform bill, some 84 municipalities in Quebec and a handful of boroughs are at risk of losing bilingual status if English speakers are no longer a majority of their population.
However, there are safeguards in place if elected officials want to maintain that status — a status that allows the city to communicate with citizens in English, be it in online, in flyers or at council meetings.
Even before the Legault government revealed its plan Thursday, political leaders from municipalities with bilingual status seemed to be gearing up for a fight reminiscent of late 2012 when they gathered to oppose the Parti Québécois government's proposed Bill 14 — an attempt to tighten the province's language laws that fell flat by November 2013.
Now Premier François Legault's newly unveiled Bill 96 automatically revokes a municipality's bilingual status if census data shows that English is the first language for less than 50 per cent plus one of its population.
Montreal's Association of Suburban Municipalities expected a long legal battle over the issue, but the government added a loophole. Municipal councils can vote to maintain bilingual status regardless of its demographics, as long as that vote happens within 120 days of the bill's adoption.
Montreal borough mayor readies resolution
The borough mayor of Pierrefonds-Roxboro, Jim Beis, will be among the first to take advantage of that loophole with the support of his political party, Ensemble Montréal.
He says he plans to table a resolution within the next four months even if the number of residents who speak English as a first language has dropped below 30 per cent.
"We will continue to protect our bilingual status," he said in a statement. "This is a reasonable bill that will allow us to defend the citizens of Pierrefonds-Roxboro within established frameworks, which we will sit down to do immediately."
Montreal West Mayor Beny Masella said it's "very interesting" that municipalities will have a way to maintain bilingualism, but he's not celebrating just yet.
"The devil's going to be in the details," he said.
The City of Montreal does not have bilingual status, and Mayor Valérie Plante voiced her support for Legault's Bill 96.
"As the only French-speaking metropolis in the Americas, Montreal will be an ally of Bill 101 and its reform," Plante said in a statement on Thursday.
"The bill tabled today strengthens the tools put in place by the city to ensure the sustainability of French in Montreal."
As for her leading opponent in the upcoming election, former mayor Denis Coderre vows to co-operate with the government in protecting the French language.
English populations decline in some areas
Outside of Montreal, there are plenty of municipalities that have historically been majority anglophone, but are seeing a decline in English-speaking residents.
Places like Greenfield Park on Montreal's South Shore is down to 26 per cent and Ayer's Cliff in the Eastern Townships is down to 36 per cent.
Mary MacLachlin grew up in Ontario, and now lives in Sherbrooke's bilingual borough of Lennoxville which has dropped to about 44 per cent Anglophone.
She worries the government could be deterring people from moving to the province.
"I love living here. I'm really glad I came, but if I didn't speak French, I know that I would have a really, really hard time," she said. "We don't want that to discourage people from coming."
Gerald Cutting, head of the Townshippers' Association in the Eastern Townships, said the proposed bill is putting English communities in rural settings at risk.
"There are some parts of Quebec where there are no longer English communities," he said. "There were speakers, but their institutions are gone."