The price of gas was 77.2 cents a litre, Jean Chrétien was prime minister and Billie Eilish wasn’t even born the last time English-speaking Quebecers protested in the streets 22 years ago.
But now the generally pacifist anglophone community in Montreal is mobilizing and hundreds or even thousands will march Saturday against a proposed law that many say will restrict access to services in their language.
The English community has said the law would erode English-language CEGEPs because of caps on enrolment and the requirement that all students take three additional classes in French, making it more difficult for them to graduate.
Other aspects of the law the community has found troubling are increased powers being given to the province’s language watchdog, such as the power to search and seize without a warrant. The community is also concerned about how the law could restrict access to English language services in courts and in the health care sector.
Over the past few days, information booths have been set up at English-language CEGEPs and emails have been sent to parents of children attending English-language elementary and high schools, urging them to come out on Saturday.
The event is planned for 10 a.m. in front of Dawson College on Sherbrooke St. W. at the corner of Atwater Ave., with protesters marching to Premier François Legault’s office on McGill College Ave. It’s not known how many will show up, but the community appears galvanized, said Russell Copeman, executive director of the Quebec English School Boards Association and a spokesperson for Saturday’s planned day of action.
“In my lifetime, there have not been a huge number of large demonstrations related to public policy in Quebec that were spearheaded by the English community; there was the referendum (in 1995) and the issue of mergers and demergers (in 2000),” said Copeman, a former MNA with the Liberal party and a former Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough mayor. “I think the feeling of anxiety, distress and dissatisfaction has rarely been higher in the community than it is (over Bill 96).”
Copeman said not only is the English-speaking community concerned about the law, but it’s also frustrated that concerns have largely fallen on deaf ears, with the government painting those opposed to the bill as being against the protection of the French language.
“The government has portrayed people opposed to Bill 96 as being bad Quebecers, and we reject that argument. It’s very divisive,” Copeman said.
Legault has said the bill is “balanced and reasonable,” saying that the CAQ government resisted a call by other parties to ban French-speakers and allophones from English CEGEPs, a move Legault said would be “radical.”
Copeman is hoping Saturday’s action raises awareness about the bill among the majority French-speaking community, who he says will also be hurt by its passage, as it will limit enrolment to English CEGEPs for francophones and allophones, ultimately giving them less choice to decide their futures.
However, there seemed to be little awareness about the bill or its impacts among people approached by a reporter this week at the Rosemont métro station. Only five out of 30 said they were aware the government was trying to bolster the French language, and most of them were not aware of the contents of the proposed law.
“It’s a bit complicated,” said Rosemont resident Anne-Marie Levac. “I’m one of the first to say the French language should be protected, but I’m not sure (the bill) is the right way to do it, since English-speakers feel threatened.”
“It’s clear we have to protect the French language, but I don’t like it when francophones are described as racist; I also don’t like when English-speakers are described as rich and spoiled. It’s not true.”
While the English-speaking community feels threatened, leaders of Indigenous nations say the law is an attack on their culture and amounts to cultural genocide.
“There will be a pretty decent contingent from Kahnawake participating in the rally,” said Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK). “I am using strong language like (cultural genocide) because I want them to realize how dismissive this bill is for First Nations.”
She said the community is demanding a full exemption from the law. It would place barriers in front of Indigenous communities, not just with the additional requirements for CEGEP students, but it will make it more difficult for them to access services in English, since most Aboriginals are not considered to be historic anglophones as outlined in the bill.
She added that Saturday’s participation in the protest will be one of several actions planned to protest the bill if the province doesn’t accede to the community’s demands.
“You put a Mercier Bridge through our territory, you put a train rail through our territory. If we can’t find a way to coexist, what does that say about the future? We’re not threatening violence, but we’re threatening action because sometimes it takes action to get a response.”
On Thursday, Sky-Deer announced on the MCK’s Facebook page that she will meet Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière and Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister responsible for the French language, to discuss her community’s demands.