Western Quebec mayors urge changes to controversial language bill

Bill 96 was drafted to promote the use of French in the province, but some municipal officials in the Pontiac are worried about its potential impact on the region's English speakers, and they're asking the province to make changes.

Bill 96 designed to safeguard French in Quebec, but some worry it could drive English speakers out

MRC de Pontiac warden Jane Toller says she's not opposed to Bill 96, but worries about its potential impact on the region's anglophones. (Radio-Canada)

Several mayors in western Quebec say they're hopeful the province will reconsider certain sections of its proposed language law, Bill 96, to protect the region's anglophones.

The stated goal of Bill 96 is to increase the use of French in public and in workplaces. Quebec's CAQ government tabled it in May after several studies showed the French language in decline across the province, particularly in Montreal.

But some municipal officials, including the Pontiac's regional council of 18 local mayors, have expressed concern that parts of the bill could limit access to services in English for residents, and create challenges for business owners. They're petitioning the province to alter those sections.

"We're asking for fairness, we're asking to ensure there will be no discrimination so everyone continues to feel welcome here," said Jane Toller, warden of the Pontiac council. 

Municipalities could lose bilingual status

Some of Bill 96's proposed measures include capping the number of students who study in English at CEGEPs, and removing a municipality's bilingual status if census data shows that English is the first language for less than 50 per cent of its population.

The latter would mean a town's signs, services and documents would be exclusively in French. 

"We're not opposing the bill, we understand the background and the need for this, to protect and strengthen French culture in Quebec, and we embrace that," Toller said. 

But she said she's particularly concerned about older residents who need access to municipal services and medical care in English, and who could lose that access if their town loses its bilingual status.

Barriers between neighbours

Toller said francophones and anglophones coexist well in her region, and she doesn't want the government to create unnecessary barriers between neighbours. 

"I think there has been a fear of what it could develop into," she said. "I think many people remember previously in the history of this province when people who were English-speaking did not feel welcome and felt the need to leave Quebec and go to Ontario."

That's my big fear, is losing our anglophone population, losing our English schools, losing our English services.- Pontiac Mayor Joanne Labadie

Toller said she's confident that chapter of Quebec's history won't repeat itself, explaining she's been reassured by both the deputy premier and several MNAs that the purpose of the bill is to strengthen French, not weaken English. 

The mayor of the Municipality of Pontiac, Joanne Labadie, has also voiced her concerns about Bill 96. She said while her municipality is not part of the larger MRC de Pontiac, she has every intention of signing the petition. 

Municipalities such as hers, which have had bilingual status for decades but don't meet the 50 per cent anglophone population threshold, would be able to reapply for the designation by passing a resolution of council.

"But we're in the middle of a municipal election campaign and the council could change dramatically, and the next council after Nov. 7 could make a different decision and choose not to pass such a resolution," Labadie said. 

She said she's worried the bill could place an undue burden on businesses, that it could limit civic engagement if residents can't ask questions in English at council meetings, and that it could ultimately drive people out of town. 

"Our close proximity to Ontario makes it easy for our community. They're very mobile to move if things get worse," she said. "That's my big fear, is losing our anglophone population, losing our English schools, losing our English services."

Quebec Language Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette has been adamant the bill won't change the way anglophone residents access necessary services.

The Pontiac region's petition is set to be presented to Quebec's National Assembly in the next month.