Updated: May 7, 2021
MONTREAL — Two decades after a provincial language law was passed, a certain provision that has been “shelved” all that time will come into force next year, the province announced Thursday.
All Quebec companies and government bodies will be hearing from the province only in French, at least in written communications.
That includes all municipalities and other governments in Quebec, as well as school boards and health and social services establishments.
The change will also apply to all “legal persons,” including all companies, that were established in Quebec.
The change will come into effect by May 5, 2022. Until then, the government will study whether, and when, any exceptions should be allowed.
But there were several murky areas in the original announcement that left English-speaking Quebecers unclear on what exactly the new regime will look like.
At first, the announcement simply said the province “must use only French in its written communications” with the groups in question, leaving it hazy what would happen if a company, for example, wrote to the province in English — would they hear back at all? Or would they get a request to resend the document in French?
Later Thursday, spokesperson Paul-Jean Charest said that in fact, the province will read documents in English, but it just won’t write them.
“This article covers written communications from the Administration,” he wrote in an email. “It does not regulate the communications that legal persons could send to the Administration.”
There has been no suggestion that the law will change anything around how individual English speakers are able to get services in English, as is their right in some situations.
Charest also clarified later Thursday that there will be no changes in the court system and people’s ability to use English there.
MUCH LEFT TO LEARN, SAY COMMUNITY LEADERS
Some groups still aren’t sure if they’ll be counted as legal persons for the purposes of the law — for example, non-profits.
“We are looking at the potential impacts of this change, which appear to have impact on community organizations,” said Rita Legault, the spokesperson for the Quebec Community Groups Network or QCGN.
Charest didn’t respond to a question about whether community groups or other registered non-corporate organizations could be included.
A spokesperson for the English Montreal School Board said it’s too soon to know exactly what it could change for the board. However, the province said the law will certainly apply to all school boards.
It’s too soon to know if the change could cause any major hiccups, said Liberal MNA Greg Kelley, especially considering that most school boards, for example, already communicate in French with the province.
“I hope there would never be a situation where anyone would be ignored in this case, especially if it’s pertaining to anything as important as health and social services, protection of our youth,” he said.
The mayor of the town of Montreal West, Beny Masella, said that after asking a lawyer to look at Thursday’s news release, his interpretation is that it will require the town not just to use French when talking “upstream,” to the province — which it already does — but “downstream,” to its own local businesses.
In Montreal West, which has official bilingual status and sends out its town communication in both languages, that’s going to put a particular burden on “allophone” immigrants who are already working in their third or fourth language and may not have practice reading French.
“Chinese may be their first language, or Indian,” Masella said.
“The guy who owns that little business, he’s perfectly bilingual speaking in French. Perfectly comfortable,” but “it’s one thing to be able to speak to your customer, it’s another thing to get a document coming that’s technical,” as many official letters are, and written in French.
“There’s a lot of devil to be worked out in the details now,” said Masella.