Bill 96: the timeline to implement the new language law stretches into the future

Adopting Bill 96 overhauling the Charter of the French Language was one thing. Applying it to the daily lives of citizens, the education, municipal and business sector is another. The CAQ has given itself plenty of lead time.

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QUEBEC — It may come as a surprise given all the heated debate surrounding the legislation, but some of the biggest changes included in Bill 96 overhauling the Charter of the French Language won’t be implemented overnight.

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Adopted May 23 in the final weeks of the Quebec’s 42nd legislaturethe bill contains 200 clauses — major and minor — which the government says reinforce the use of French in all areas of Quebec life: from the courts and education system to municipalities and even birth and death certificates.

The final version of the bill, with its dozens of amendments and sub-amendments, is not yet available. Government officials say lawyers and bureaucrats are still sifting through the legislation and will post a final version “shortly.”

Less known is when the different elements of the law will be implemented. A timeline provided to the Montreal Gazette by the ministry responsible for the French language maps out the road ahead.

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The first immediate change following its adoption in the legislature involves the bill’s preamble and the Canadian Constitution.

Bill 96 introduces two new articles into the Constitution that recognize Quebec’s distinctive character. Article 90Q.1 states Quebecers form a nation while 90Q.2 says “French shall be the only official language of Quebec. It is also the common language of the Quebec nation.”

Describing the insertion of the articles as more than just symbolic, the minister responsible for the bill, Simon Jolin-Barrette, proudly displayed a copy of the amendments inserted into the 1867 Constitution Act in May. He said the additions give an official status to the collective rights of Quebecers and the sustainability of French.

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On the other hand, analysts note the courts have not had an opportunity to test the significance or legal weight of the clauses. They also do not change the fact Quebec never signed the 1982 Constitution.

Another immediate effect of the bill was that Jolin-Barrette got a new cabinet title, going from the minister responsible for the French language to Minister of the French Language.

The job includes the creation of a full-fledged ministry complete with deputy ministers, a budget of $27.4 million for 2022-2023 and a staff of 70. Proud of what he accomplished, Jolin-Barrette last Thursday addressed the prestigious Académie française in Paris where he outlined what Quebec has accomplished to shore up French.

Finally, immediately applicable with the adoption of the bill, is the clause subjecting federally-regulated corporations like Canada Post and banks with 50 employees and up to the rules of the charter in order to guarantee workers the right to work in French.

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The government has not spelled out how that will work. In the meantime, the federal government’s own overhaul of the Official Language Act has a similar objective.

Other changes to Quebec kick in a year later. Starting in June 2023, Quebec’s new one-stop French language learning service agency, Francisation Québec, is supposed to be up and running, as are new free French courses for any Quebecer who wants to improve their language skills.

Originally an idea of Jacques-Cartier Liberal MNA Greg KelleyJolin-Barrette made it happen in Bill 96.

June 2023 is also the date where French will be used exclusively as the language of communication by the government. Bill 96, however, includes a battery of exceptions where English can still be used.

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In the 2023-2024 academic year, the government will start applying Bill 96’s enrolment cap on francophones and allophones to English CEGEPs. Francophones and allophones in the English system will have to pass a French proficiency test to graduate, the same exam taken by students in francophone CEGEPs.

It’s not until the 2024-2025 academic year that the requirement for students in English CEGEPs to take three courses in French or three more courses of French as a second language to obtain their Diplôme d’études collégiales (DEC) starts.

Again, questions abound on how this will be appliedhow it could affect student grades and how it could affect the jobs of hundreds of teachers. CEGEP leaders say they plan to lobby for more time to apply the new plan.

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Also starting in June 2024 is the requirement of a French translation for court documents filed by corporations. That clause faces a legal challenge in the meantime.

The group with the longest lead time to adapt is business. They have until June 2025 to change their trademark commercial signs to ensure the “net predominance,” of French. The rules will cost business a bundle.

It is also not until June 2025 that smaller businesses with 25 to 49 employees have to follow the francization rules of the charter, which ensure workplaces conform to Bill 96.

Given the long lead up to fully applying the bill, what are the chances of it being changed along the way? It depends on who forms the next government in this fall’s general election.

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If, as expected, the CAQ wins a majority, expect nothing by way of changes. It is, after all, the CAQ’s law.

If the Liberals form the government, they have pledged to alter the bill but not repeal it. They would drop the six-month rule for immigrants to get services in their first language, the cap on enrolments and bring back freedom of choice for access to CEGEPs.

If Québec solidaire forms the government, it pledges to also drop the immigration clause but leave much of the law the same. QS is the only other party that voted in favour of Bill 96.

If the Parti Québécois forms the next government, expect it to scrap the bill and present one that is much tougher.

The Conservative Party of Quebecwhich voted against Bill 96 and is polling second to the Liberals among non-francophone voterssays as a government it would drop the use of the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause shielding the law from court challenges.

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The party wants the law to be subject to the rules of the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights and freedoms and that citizens be able to challenge the law before the judiciary.

The two new parties focused, among other things, on minority rights, the Canadian Party of Quebec and Block Montreal both promise to repeal the bill in the unlikely event either forms a government.

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