Language, religion and politics

4 minute read

Read this article in French here.

Last week in the House of Commons, the Bloc Québécois tabled a motion proposing to replace the recitation of a prayer at the opening of the business of the House with a “moment of reflection.”

The Bloc motion, which calls for a modification of the rules of the House, states that The House respects the beliefs and non-beliefs of all parliamentarians as well as the population. The Bloc members also assert their attachment to the principle of separation of religion and state, to the diversity of opinions and freedom of conscience, respect for secularism, the religious neutrality of the state, and concern for inclusion.

There are certainly more pressing issues facing the county, but the Bloc is falling back on its old tactics of bringing issues to Parliament based on its core beliefs. The new deal between the NDP and the Liberals gives them fewer opportunities to advance their policies, so they are attempting to get attention differently. 

This also mirrors what is happening in provincial politics in Quebec with the controversial Bill 96.

Quebec’s National Assembly is entering the home stretch before passing Bill 96, a controversial piece of legislation that aims to dramatically expand the province’s ability to enforce the use of French in public and private life.

Proponents of this bill have called it an essential tool to preserve Quebec as the last predominantly French-speaking jurisdiction in North America. Nonetheless, Indigenous leaders have denounced the bill as “cultural genocide” that would impose French on the province’s predominantly English-speaking First Nations communities. Doctors’ groups have warned it ‘could endanger people’s lives or have negative mental health effects if applied.’ Last week, college students in Quebec staged a massive walkout to protest the bill’s restrictions on English-language education.

With few exceptions, Bill 96 obliges doctors to speak to their patients in French, even in situations where the doctor and patient would understand each other better in another language. Certain bilingual institutions, such as the Jewish General Hospital, are exempt. The same goes for patients who can prove they attended an English-speaking school in Canada, or for immigrants who arrived in Quebec within the last six months. But for everyone else, everything from cancer diagnosis to Alzheimer’s disease treatment must be done in French.

If a doctor violates the principles of Bill 96, all it takes is an anonymous complaint to the Office.

québécois de la langue française for investigators to enter his office and begin seizing records without a warrant, including confidential medical documents. And in this area, physicians are not alone: ​​many of the provisions described below also rely on the expanded search and seizure powers of the Office québécois de la langue française.

The bill mandates the “francization” of any business with more than 25 employees, which means businesses will need to obtain a certificate from the government that they operate primarily in French. An estimated 20,000 businesses will be affected by the new regulations, according to provincial government figures.

Aboriginal communities in Quebec generally do not have French as their first language. Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, outside of Montreal, is part of a larger Mohawk Council that has many members in the English-speaking United States. Inuit and Cree communities in the Arctic regions of the province did not become part of Quebec until 1912, and the Inuit, in particular, still use Inuktitut widely at home, with English being the usual second language. For this reason, First Nations leaders are particularly opposed to Bill 96’s mandates on CEGEPs — the state-funded colleges offered to Quebecers between high school and university.

Students in English-language CEGEPs will now have to take at least five courses in French to graduate, which First Nations leaders say will reduce already low Indigenous graduation rates. “We declare that this Bill, if passed, will never apply…and that our people will not allow it to apply to them anywhere on their ancestral lands,” reads a recent statement from the Haudenosaunee Longhouse, the traditional Mohawk government of Kahnawake.

Another provision of Bill 96 on education provides that English-language CEGEPs will be subject to descending quotas for the number of students they can accommodate. English-language primary and secondary schools are currently offered in Quebec to a select subset of what are known as “historical Anglophones”, that is, Anglophones with established roots in the province. New immigrants to Quebec, for example, are already required to complete their schooling in French, regardless of their mother tongue.

But CEGEP students still have full latitude in choosing an English or French school. Bill 96 puts an end to this regime; from now on, students from English-speaking CEGEPs will only be able to represent 17.5% of total admissions to CEGEPs – a measure that has been denounced by French-speaking students who seek to brush up on their English before studying at a university in English Canada or the United States.

Quebec is trying to preserve its linguistic heritage, but at what cost? This bill poses significant challenges for the labour market, students, and First Nations communities in Quebec. With language and religion at the forefront of the federal and provincial nationalist parties in the province, and with a provincial election looming in the fall, parties will have to tread carefully as the division between church, mother tongue, and the state surfaces.

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