Quebec immigrant advocates want essential services excluded from Bill 96
More than 20 academics and people who help newcomers settle in Quebec are calling on the province to exempt essential public services from Bill 96, its controversial language reform bill.
“It’s going to prevent people from getting the services they need,” said Jill Hanley, a professor at McGill University’s School of Social Work.
Hanley is one of many professors, researchers and service providers who work with immigrants and refugees and have brought their concerns to the government. They are also writing an open letter which will be published next week.
The group says they are particularly concerned about a provision in the bill that states that after six months of immigrating to the province, all government communications with them will be in French.
“We think it’s a human rights issue, it’s a public health issue, it’s a social issue,” Hanley said.
Quebec says the goal of Bill 96 is to increase the use of French in public and in the workplace and that it makes exceptions for ‘historic’ English speakers – anyone who attended school in Canada in English – and Aboriginal peoples, when it comes to receiving services.
The bill was introduced in May after studies showed the use of French is declining across the province, particularly in Montreal, and uses the notwithstanding clause to avoid legal challenges.
The bill has been the subject of several hearings in the National Assembly and is still under consideration, but has generated many reactions, mainly from the English-speaking community.
Not enough time
Garine Papazian-Zohrabian, associate professor in educational psychology at the Université de Montréal, recently completed a study on the francization of immigrants. She says she is concerned about those who are most vulnerable: immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers who arrive with “heavy luggage” and often little money or education.
“Six months is not enough,” she said. “All the studies show that the more they have difficulties, traumas, losses, the more they have difficulty adapting, the less they are able to learn.”
Papazian-Zohrabian says learning a new language is often not the top priority for people who come to Quebec to escape dangerous life situations. She recalls the hundreds of recent immigrants from Afghanistan, who left after the Taliban took control of their country.
“They’re stressed, they’ve lost family, they’ve lost friends, they’re going through grief, post-traumatic disorder, they have to adapt,” she said.
“Integration is not just about learning the language. First of all, it’s about feeling accepted, feeling that you belong in this country, feeling safe.”
“I think there is some oversight in this bill, perhaps without the government’s intent,” Hanley said. “This effectively blocks access to social, health and economic rights for the most vulnerable people.”
Health and social services not included, according to the ministry
Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who is also minister responsible for the French language, insisted that Bill 96 will not affect Quebec’s health and social services law. In a statement to CBC, his office said the proposed bill will have “no impact” on access to health services and will provide other security exceptions.
Jolin-Barrette’s office says a “pillar of reform” proposed in Bill 96 is to ensure the province sets high standards. Under the new rules, Quebec bureaucracy will communicate with immigrants in French from the outset, with some flexibility for specific situations that require the use of a language other than French during their first six months in the province. .
Currently, according to the Department of Justice, Quebec interacts with immigrants in languages other than French on request for years, and sometimes for a lifetime. This is a situation, says the ministry, which does not promote integration into French-speaking society.
The ministry says it understands that the time needed to learn French is unique to each individual and under the proposed bill, a new francization program will be created to offer a more streamlined, personalized and supposedly more immigrant-friendly approach.
Hanley says the law will create what she calls “procedural absurdity.” She gives the example of a migrant agricultural worker who wishes to report an accident at work and only speaks English or Spanish.
“How is the person on the other side supposed to determine whether or not he has the right to speak to him in English? ” she asked. “How is a farmhand supposed to convince the worker that he has the right to speak in Spanish?”
“You should almost do a screening on the person’s right to speak which language before you start giving them the service.”
“It’s ridiculous, it won’t work. It’s going to create problems in emergency rooms, it’s going to create problems in government waiting rooms… in online access.”
The Department of Justice always says it is open to ideas for better protecting and promoting the French language in Quebec.
He indicated that a detailed study of the proposed Bill 96 is yet to come and that the government will share how it intends to proceed with the bill in due course.