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National Opinion Centre

A new bill tabled in the National Assembly of Quebec legislature by Coalition avenir Quebec (CAQ) member (Borduas) Simon Jolin-Barrette, minister responsible for the French language, aims to amend the Constitution of Canada and establish Quebec as a sovereign nation – with French as it’s official and common language (which most Canadians thought was the case already).

Bill 96 “An Act representing French, the official and common language of Quebec” will be seen by many as nothing other than a not-too-thinly-veiled attempt at separation, while bypassing the troublesome and constitutionally mandated task of polling Quebecers by referendum to determine whether there is the requisite level of support for the idea.

Previous referendums were unsuccessful, with a majority of Quebecers voting against separation – 60 per cent in 1980, and a slim 50.58 per cent in 1995 (due primarily to discontent amongst Francophone Quebecers as a reaction to a toxic national atmosphere of debate over the “distinct society” issue).

In 1995, Premier Lucien Bouchard argued that “50 per cent plus one” met the threshold for establishing a “clear majority” of opinion during that second sovereignty referendum.

This was challenged by Liberal MP (St. Laurent – Cartierville) minister of intergovernmental affairs Stephen Dion, and resulted in passing of the Clarity Act (Bill C-20) in June 2000.

The Act became a major hurdle for would-be separatists in any Canadian province, and a thorn in the side of Quebec separatists. It affords the House of Commons the power to decide whether a proposed referendum question was considered clear before the public vote and whether or not a clear majority had voted. Further, it requires that all provinces and the First Nations be included in the negotiations, and allows the House of Commons to override a referendum decision in the event that the referendum violates the Act in any way. The secession would then require an amendment to the Constitution.

While Bill 96 is ostensibly an attack on the English language – containing provisions that would see further commercial signage restrictions, a cap on the number of students in English CEGEPs at 17.5 per cent of the student population, revocation of a municipality’s bilingual status if census data shows that English is the first language for less than 50 per cent of its population, unless the municipality passes a resolution to remain bilingual, creation of a French Language Ministry (although the French language already has it’s own minister… Jolin-Barrette) and a French language commissioner, and a requirement that all provincial communication with immigrants be French only (after six months of residency) – the separatist devil is in the details.

In fact, it could almost be considered an omnibus bill, with hidden references to Quebec sovereignty within.

Paragraph 1 (1) reads, “Whereas the National Assembly recognizes that French is the common language of the Québec nation and that it is essential that all be aware of the importance of the French language and Québec culture as elements that bind society together, and whereas it is resolved therefore to ensure that everyone has access to learning that language and to make French the language of integration;”

and (2) reads, “Whereas Québec is the only French-speaking State in North America and shares a long history with the francophone and Acadian communities of Canada, and whereas that confers a special responsibility.”

Note the references to “Quebec nation” and “French-speaking state”.

Further, Paragraph 159 seeks to amend the wording of the Constitution Act of 1867, “159. The Constitution Act, 1867 (30 & 31 Victoria, c. 3 (U.K.); 1982, c. 11 (U.K.)) is amended by inserting the following after section 90: FUNDAMENTAL CHARACTERISTICS OF QUEBEC – 90Q.1. Quebecers form a nation.”

“Quebecers form a nation.”

Actually, Quebecers form a Province of Canada – a province where almost 20 per cent of the population speak English at home and mother-tongue Anglophones represent almost 10 per cent of the population.

According to the 2016 census, 45 per cent of Quebecers are now bilingual, up from 42.6 per cent in 2011. Census numbers showed that Quebec gained 74,000 residents whose first language is English from 2011 to 2016, increasing the growth rate for mother-tongue English-speakers to 10.6 per cent — triple the growth rate for Quebec’s population as a whole.

Bill 96 comes on the heels of a number of studies from the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF), indicating that the French language is in decline. A 2018 study projected that the percentage of Quebecers who speak French at home will drop from 82 per cent in 2011 to about 75 per cent in 2036. A second study found that a quarter of Montreal employees surveyed said they use French and English equally at work.

As any Quebec resident will attest, it is usually more convenient to parler au La Belle Province. It follows therefore that these numbers are being driven by an increasing number of Quebecers choosing to speak English, at least part of the time.

Choice, of course, is a foundational decretum of democracy.

Quebec separatists however, such as Jolin-Barrette and Premier Francoise Legault, don’t seem too hip on choice… or democracy.

Their vision of Quebec as a sovereign French speaking nation has not been shared historically by a majority of Quebecers, and Quebecers were not consulted prior to the introduction of Bill 96.

Bill 96 is a long way from becoming law. In separate sittings of the Assembly, it must pass through referral for consultation, passage in principle, committee stage, report stage, and final passage.

Then, it would run up against the not-insignificant matter of federal approval by Parliament… notwithstanding 32 assured votes by the sitting Bloc Quebecoise members – who somehow managed to get sworn in as federal MP’s on a separatist ticket.

CAQ however is not a separatist party. It was formed and elected on a platform of strong Quebec nationalism… within Canada.

All the more curious then, these declarations of Quebec as a “nation”.

While Quebec independence remains deeply unpopular (as the Parti Quebecoise discovered in 2014 and 2018), Canadians can be forgiven some national nervousness when the familiar narrative of “sovereignty, autonomy, and distinct society” remerges periodically from the Plains of Abraham on the wings of a few leaders who just don’t see things the same way as most Quebecers do.

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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