In Saint-Lazare, a leafy suburb west of Montréal known for its equestrian trails, there are French speakers and English speakers, but many residents are fluent in both languages. Respect for linguistic diversity comes naturally, Mayor Geneviève Lachance said, even in a province with long-standing rules to ensure that French remains the dominant language.
“Day to day, we’ve always communicated in French or English, whatever the citizens speak. It’s never been an issue,” she said. “Everybody’s accepting of each other.”
But a new provincial law is challenging the language harmony that Saint-Lazare and many other Québec communities have nurtured. Known as Bill 96, the legislation tightens limits on the use of English in ways visitors may not notice but that will affect nearly all aspects of Québécois’ public life. Although the law is designed to buttress the use of French, critics say its far-reaching approach tramples the rights of the region’s non-French-speaking minorities and could hurt Québec’s immigrant-reliant economy.
Among the changes: Businesses can no longer require most employees to know English. Enrollment at English-language preparatory colleges will be capped. And only certain people — tourists among them — may legally converse with public officials in English.
Many of the law’s provisions took effect on June 1, prompting confusion, condemnation and ridicule. Complaints trickled in that some government employees were asking citizens to prove that they were eligible to be served in English. The City of Montréal added an automated message to its phone system that asked callers to “attest in good faith” that they were legally entitled to press “2” for English. The City of Côte Saint-Luc, in turn, mocked Montréal, assuring its callers that they need not produce their “family tree going back 10 generations.”
“To me, it’s nonsense,” said Lachance, whose first language is French. “It’s very uncomfortable to have to put this forward, because I don’t think it’s the right approach to protect the French language and I don’t want my own residents not to feel welcome.”
The survival of French in Québec has long been a source of existential anxiety for the province’s French Canadian majority, who live in the only predominantly francophone region in North America. French has been enshrined as the official and “everyday language” of government and commerce since 1977, when the National Assembly of Québec passed the Charter of the French Language, or la Charte de la langue française.
Intensely controversial at the time, the charter established citizens’ rights to be served in French by government and businesses, made French the language of education, and created an enforcement arm to oversee compliance. Native English speakers and large corporations soon decamped in droves — but the law largely succeeded in its aims. Today, more than three-quarters of Québec residents speak French at home, according to government data.
Yet bilingualism has also flourished — nearly half of Québec residents can speak both English and French — and the streets of Montréal remain a cosmopolitan brew of global cultures. Census data has shown a slight dip in French usage in recent years, giving new fuel to nationalists who promote Québécois identity and portray immigration as a cultural threat.
Premier François Legault and his center-right Coalition Avenir Québec party are leaders of the movement. Legault has said allowing in too many immigrants who don’t speak French would be “suicidal” for the language and warned that Québec could go the way of Louisiana and its diminished francophone culture. When the Montréal Canadiens made Ontario-born Nick Suzuki the hockey team’s captain last year, the premier called on him to learn French.
Bill 96, which Legault championed, is the largest language overhaul since the 1977 charter. Its sweeping reforms apply to language use and hiring practices in courts, schools, businesses and government.
As the legislation was being crafted in 2021, the CEO of Montréal-based Air Canada fueled the debate by delivering a speech in English and saying he’d been able to live easily in the metropolis without learning French. The province’s language minister, Simon Jolin-Barrette, said the business executive’s comments showed “contempt for our language and our culture,” the Montreal Gazette reported.
At the heart of Bill 96 is the mandate that government services be provided exclusively in French. There are limited exceptions: for Indigenous residents and for immigrants who have lived in the province for less than six months. The law also exempts residents who are considered “historic anglophones,” meaning they or their parents were educated in English in Canada.
Geoffrey Chambers, a community activist in Montréal who retired from the railway industry, qualifies as a “historic anglophone” under the law. He’s not thrilled about the label, which he said the government is using to create ethnic divisions.
“It’s not something in the modern world we really should do,” Chambers said.
Hundreds of thousands of English speakers in Québec — many of them immigrants from abroad — don’t qualify to use English when they go to get their driver’s license, apply for a pet license or have questions about their tax bill. The six-month time frame for newcomers to learn French, even with free language classes, is unrealistic, advocates say. “Immigrants have been used as a political football,” said Greg Kelley, a member of the National Assembly of Québec who represents one of its few Anglophone-majority districts.
To expand Québec language rules so broadly, the National Assembly invoked an unusual legislative power that circumvents Canada’s equivalent of the U.S. Bill of Rights. That means Bill 96 is immune from legal challenges based on national civil rights protections, said Robert Leckey, dean of the McGill University Faculty of Law.
“It’s quite drastic,” he said. “This is a power that is not used that often. And it was used in a very sweeping way.”
The legal maneuver also grants new powers to the province’s language enforcers, the Office québécois de la langue française, to investigate claims that businesses are not using enough French. Critics of the law point out that these inspectors — sometimes referred to derisively as the “language police” — do not need search warrants to review a company’s computer equipment for English communications. The government has said it does not intend to operate that way, though Julius Grey, a civil rights attorney who is bringing legal challenges against Bill 96, said the provision is ripe for abuse.
“The Office de le langue française has wider power of invasion than the police when they’re investigating a murder,” he said.
Language enforcers have occasionally been criticized as overzealous, such as when a Montréal restaurant was dinged in 2013 for printing “pasta” on its menu. Saint-Lazare, the linguistically mixed suburb, was similarly chastised some years ago. The provincial government forced Saint-Lazare to cover up the word “welcome” on its roadside signs, which had appeared below the French equivalent, “vous accueille.” City officials recently installed new signs without any greetings, “so we don’t exclude anyone,” Mayor Lachance explained.
Lachance said her city is waiting to see how others and the Québec government handle the new language requirements before altering any of its practices. “We’re just taking it slowly and seeing what we need to do,” she said.
In the meantime, the courts are fielding a flurry of legal challenges to aspects of the law. The objectors include First Nations groups that say new rules around French-language schooling amount to “insidious assimilation methods that date back to another era,” as Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations Québec-Labrador, said when announcing the suit.
A group of anglophone citizens are suing, saying they are being deprived of their rights. So is a group of more than 20 cities and towns that have an official bilingual status within Québec because more than half their residents speak English as their first language.
All legal contracts in Québec now must be drawn up in French, even if the parties involved don’t speak the language. The rule applies even to Bonne-Espérance, a collection of three tiny fishing villages near the Labrador border that has joined the challenge to Bill 96. The towns are in Québec but culturally connected to Newfoundland and England; 99 percent of residents speak English, according to official data.
Dale Roberts Keats, a grandmother who became mayor of Bonne-Espérance in 2021, said she’s a “proud Québecer” and understands the need to safeguard French. But the new requirements are confusing: Will the towns have to pay for someone to translate their snow-plowing contracts into French?
“It’s absurd for me to do a contract in French with people who only speak English,” she said.
How the law affects language habits and access in Québec will take years to assess, said Leckey, the law professor. While the law shields health care providers from restrictions on English usage, some fear that, over time, limits on bilingual hiring could undermine patients’ ability to communicate with their caregivers in English. And some provisions will be difficult to enforce.
In Saint-Lazare, Lachance wishes the government would use a softer touch. “To protect the language is to put it up front, to make it shine, to get people to see how beautiful it is,” she said. “Not to push down your throat restrictions and make people feel like they’re not part of this province.”
At a recent press conference, Premier Legault said the stricter French rules will be good for business and tourism. “It makes us distinct in North America,” he said, in English.
Lachance, meanwhile, said she worries that the government’s posture is giving a false impression that Québécois aren’t accommodating.
“I know that our own residents sometimes don’t feel welcome here, but I don’t want other people to perceive us as unwelcoming because of this,” she said.
In response to an interview request in English about the language law and how visitors might navigate any changes, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the French Language replied with a written statement: “Les touristes étrangers ne seront pas touchés par l’entrée en vigueur de la Loi.”
Beneath the statement, the office provided a “traduction de courtoisie,” or courtesy translation, that may not match the grace of the original French: “Foreign tourists will not be affected by the coming into force of the Act.”