Canadians debate Quebec’s move to be recognized in Constitution as Francophone nation

Legault and Jolin-Barrette.
Legault and Jolin-Barrette. Author: Emilie Nadeau / Office du premier ministre du Québec
For weeks now, one of the most talked-about debates in Quebec and Canadian politics has been a bill introduced by the Quebec government that seeks to strengthen the role of the French language in the province. One of its most controversial aspects is the intention of the Quebec authorities to have Quebec constitutionally recognised as a nation of which French is the common and only official language.

Bill 96 was presented on 13 May by the Quebec government’s Minister of French Language, Simon Jolin-Barrette. The 100-page text contains measures to counteract what the Quebec government describes as the decline of French in the province, particularly in the Montreal metropolitan area, where the use of English is on the rise. “An essential gesture for the survival of our nation,” Quebec Premier François Legault put it.

The bill aims to strengthen the use of French and the linguistic rights of its speakers in the workplace, courts, schools, and the administration. It is an extension of the 1977 Charter of the French Language, which established French as Quebec’s official language and defined a series of measures to protect and promote the language.

The Quebec government is made up of members of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), a party that defines itself as “nationalist” and favours Quebec’s “autonomy, language, values, and culture” “within Canada”.

Opposition parties are lending a nuanced support to the CAQ government’s proposal. Federalist Liberal Party (PLQ) is of the opinion that there can be an agreement with the CAQ on the bill’s essentials, while the two Quebec pro-sovereignty parties (Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire), while welcoming the proposal, consider it too unambitious.

Quebec nation inscribed in Constitution

Unlike most constitutions, the Canadian constitution is made up of several legal texts. One of the most important is the Constitution Act of 1867, which defines Canada’s federal model.

Bill 96 plans to amend section 90 of the Constitution Act of 1867 by adding the following statements: “Quebecers form a nation” and “French shall be the only official language of Quebec. It is also the common language of the Quebec nation.”

The Canadian Parliament already recognised Quebec as a nation “within a united Canada” in 2006. Furthermore, French is already recognised as the only official language of Quebec in the provincial Constitution, as well as one of the federation’s two official languages, alongside English.

The Quebec government, however, wants the two provisions to be inscribed in the federal constitutional text. But who can approve such an amendment? An intense debate is ongoing in Canada on the issue.

Generally speaking, when a constitutional amendment affects only one province, a favourable vote by both houses of the Canadian Parliament and of the provincial legislature are required for it to pass.

However, another simpler procedure also exists. To amend the constitution of a province, a vote in the provincial legislature is sufficient. The Quebec government considers that amending section 90 of the Constitution Act also fits into this procedure because, it argues, it corresponds to the part of the federal Constitution that “belongs” to Quebec, and thus can be assimilated to a provincial constitutional amendment.

It is not just the Quebec government that thinks so. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has surprised many people by claiming that the federal government’s “initial” analysis points that Quebec does indeed have the right to unilaterally amend that article of the Canadian Constitution.

Some legal experts, however, believe that this is not the case and predict that, if the Quebec government gets to the point, the matter will end up in court.

On the other hand, a coalition of English-speaking citizens’ organisations, the Quebec Community Groups Network, says the bill could “prevent hundreds of thousands” of Quebecers from receiving public services in English in the future, and claims it will amount to an attack against “human rights”.

Bill 96 can still be amended and is due to be debated in the Quebec National Assembly, likely in autumn.

Is the decline of French real?

Going back to the Quebec government’s stated motivation —to tackle the decline of French— one wonders to what extent it corresponds to reality. An Office Québécois de la Langue Française (OQLF) report sounded the alarm in March 2021 by predicting that French will be the language most widely spoken at home by 74.4% of Quebecers in 2036. In 2011, the figure was 81.6%, a fall of 7 percentage points. In the Montreal region, the decline in expected to go from 68.7% in 2011 to 60.8% in 2036.

Concern about these figures may seem exaggerated if seen from most stateless nations in the world, where their own languages have much lower rates of use. But for Québécois nationalism, this has been a real touchstone of its policies for decades, as French is widely perceived as the backbone of the nation and what makes it different from the rest of North America, and it is unwilling to admit any backsliding in its use, even if it is still in the vast majority.

Criticism from Mohawk chief

Serge Otsi Simon is the chief of the Mohawk nation of Kanesatake in southern Quebec. Simon says that North America’s First Nations are best placed to understand the anguish that Quebecers feel about the future of their language, but for that matter he does not get why First Nations languages, cultures and identities have not been included in the Legault government’s Bill 96 —a matter that by the way builds on a tradition of Quebec nationalism of not placing the identity claims of these peoples at the forefront of its policies.

Simon has asked Legault for a meeting to discuss this issue. Otherwise, he says, passing the law as it is now would amount to “a second colonisation.” Legault has replied that Bill 96 does not affect First Nations.

However, the Quebec National Assembly passed a motion in June calling on the Quebec government to assume “part of the responsibility” for the promotion of its languages —the other part, it is understood, is the responsibility of the federal government.