Language bill could create 'huge burden,' says Outaouais mayor

Pontiac, Que., Mayor Joanne Labadie says proposed legislation to strengthen the French language in the province will have a number of consequences for her linguistically-split municipality, which could see its bilingual status revoked.

Bill 96 could lead to Pontiac, Que., losing bilingual status

Pontiac, Que., Mayor Joanne Labadie is worried about the consequences of Bill 96, which could lead to her municipality's bilingual status being revoked. (Laura Osman/CBC)

One western Quebec mayor says proposed legislation to strengthen the French language in the province will put "a huge burden" on her linguistically-split municipality.

Pontiac, Que., Mayor Joanne Labadie says that if passed, Bill 96 could have a big effect on the lives of local cottagers, business owners, seniors and even municipal staff.

"Everything has been happening at such a rapid pace," Labadie told CBC Radio's All In A Day Thursday.

"We're still trying to run the day-to-day [affairs] of our municipalities, and now, this is certainly going to preoccupy a lot of our time."

Tabled on Thursday morning, Bill 96 would be the toughest law aimed at fostering the French language in Quebec since Bill 101 passed in 1977.

Much of the 100-page bill seeks to bolster the language's use in public and the workforce after a series of studies by Quebec's French-language watchdog found the language is in decline. 

One provision would revoke the bilingual status of any Quebec municipality where less than half of the residents are anglophones.

That could include Pontiac, where just over 42 per cent of people spoke English as their first language, according to the 2016 census.

Can request status back

If that happened, communications from the municipality — tax bills, permit applications, council documents, even social media postings — would no longer go out in both languages, Labadie said.

That would be especially burdensome to seniors who aren't savvy with translation technology, she said. It would also put strain on local businesses that have clientele outside the region and do work in English.

The bill does allow for municipalities that lose their bilingual status to pass a resolution to request it back, a process Labadie said made "little sense."

"The devil will be in the details ... will they maintain [the threshold] at 50? Will we be grandfathered in?" she said. "We don't know yet."

Labadie said she expects the bill will generate discussion among her fellow politicians in the MRC des Collines-de-l'Outaouais, which includes other municipalities like La Pêche, Que., and Chelsea, Que., with significant English-speaking populations.

While she hoped the bill wouldn't inflame old language divisions, the COVID-19 pandemic makes things unclear, she added.

"It doesn't take much to push people over the edge when they're already under an enormous amount of stress," Labadie said. "But will it happen? I hope not."

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