What do rural Quebec voters think of Bill 96?

Jules Bastien’s eyes light up as he speaks about his son, a trilingual English teacher in Montreal. 

Bastien, 81, returned to his home region of the Mauricie in 2003 after a 43-year career as a machine operator in the city.

Over the years, he says he’s noticed a decline in how much people seem to use French in public spaces in Montreal since he first moved there in 1961.

But he’s also noticed how people in the Mauricie region, where 97 per cent of the population has French as their mother tongue, are increasingly speaking more than just French — something he is impressed by.

“My son came here two weeks ago and he was speaking Spanish here in Louiseville with someone at the Tim Hortons,” Bastien said, looking amazed.

“He was so happy because he loves speaking other languages.”

The Quebec government’s overhaul of the Charter of the French language, Bill 96, received royal assent on June 1 and several of its clauses now officially apply across the province.

The updated law is large in scope and several parts of it have sowed controversy and division, such as a clause calling for immigrants to learn French within six months and the lack of exemptions made for Indigenous communities.

When the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government presented the bill, most opposition parties in the National Assembly agreed the province could benefit from additional measures to protect French within a globalizing North America.

But its sweeping use of the notwithstanding clause, which overrides basic freedoms guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is causing concern among legal experts and professionals in municipalities, courts and civil services expected to apply the law.

The details of omnibus laws like Bill 96 often get lost on the general public. In Louiseville and Maskinongé, two neighbouring municipalities in the Mauricie region, many of the people CBC spoke to didn’t know about the law, but those who did said they supported it and the cause to protect French in Quebec.

Their region is in desperate need of workers because of a serious labour shortage.

Micheline Rabouin, who has lived in Louiseville for about 30 years, said that while she supports the law, she believes six months is too short to learn the language. 

Micheline Rabouin said she believes the government should give immigrants a year to learn French, instead of the six months outlined in Bill 96. (CBC)

“When I lived [in the Maritimes], it took me a while to learn English,” she said. “I’d say at least a year.”

CAQ popularity in Mauricie

All four MNAs representing the electoral districts in the Mauricie are part of the CAQ, the ruling party that tabled the bill. Before the party grew to prominence under the current premier, François Legault, voters in the region mostly voted for the Parti Québécois and at times, the Quebec Liberal Party. 

Bastien, the former machine operator, says he’s more “nationalist than federalist,” but that he’s voted for “all the parties.” He said that though French was important to him, it wasn’t necessarily an issue at the ballot box.

François Rousseau, 70, plans to vote for the CAQ again in the upcoming election. Throughout his life, Rousseau said he’s voted for a variety of parties in federal and provincial elections, including the NDP, Bloc Québécois and the now defunct Social Credit Party — but never Liberal. 

Why not? “Multiculturalism,” Rousseau said.

The Canadian policy dating back to former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the 1970s was heavily opposed in Quebec due to concerns it would lead to an increase in bilingualism and a decline in the use of French. 

The province has since then favoured policies that seek to integrate newcomers into Quebec society, a distinction that may be due to the idea of collective identity versus individual identity, according to Daniel Béland, the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. 

Louiseville, a town on the banks of Lac Saint-Pierre south of Trois-Rivières, has a population of about 5,400. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

“There is a sense that there is a majority culture and that is important in the way minorities are treated,” Béland said in a recent interview.

The Charter of the French language, known as Bill 101, was voted into law in 1977, six years after Trudeau’s multicultural policy. It made French the common language in Quebec and stipulated that the children of newcomers were to be educated in French. 

Protecting French

Rousseau, a Maskinongé resident, says Bill 96 is necessary given the increase in immigration to his region. 

Rousseau said he believes the CAQ is so popular there because it has managed to tap into nationalist sentiments while leaving separatism aside.

“People can’t say, ‘Oh, I won’t vote for them because they’re separatist,'” Rousseau said. 

Daniel St-Yves is also 70 and also voted for the CAQ, despite voting PQ in the past. A trucker most of his life, St-Yves said he is happily retired after “eating pavement” for 40 years. 

He travelled throughout Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick throughout his career, covering 100,000 kilometres per year.

Daniel St-Yves spent his life travelling across several Canadian provinces as a trucker. ‘When I go elsewhere, I have to speak English,’ he said. ‘When you come here, speak to me in French.’ (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

“When I go elsewhere, I have to speak English. When you come here, speak to me in French,” St-Yves said, noting he’s in favour of additional “pressures” on people to learn French in the province.

“I’m not against immigration, but when you come here you have to adapt to Quebec.”

The latest census data suggests newcomers are learning French more than ever.

Between 1976 and 2015, the percentage of students going to school in French whose first language isn’t French went from 20 per cent to 90 per cent.

Labour shortage a path to modernization?

While a shortage of more than 200,000 workers is affecting businesses across the province, the Mauricie’s agriculture and manufacturing sectors are looking at ways to modernize, according to Renée Cloutier of the local chamber of commerce.

Some are pairing up with organizations that provide psychological support to workers, as well as with the Service d’accueil des nouveaux arrivants de Trois-Rivières, which helps immigrants settle in the region and works to “promote harmonious intercultural relations between Quebecers of all origins,” according to its website.

“There is a scarcity of labour and several companies on our territory are using creativity to attract workers,” said Pier-Olivier Gagnon, who works for the municipality of Maskinongé.

Gagnon and Cloutier say the companies hope their methods help revitalize the region’s industries, which are vital to the province’s economy. 

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