OTTAWA — Conservatives MPs voted nearly unanimously with Bloc Québécois members Wednesday in favour of making French the mandatory language for all immigrants to Quebec.
Bloc MP Sylvie Bérubé’s private member’s bill, however, was defeated — 147 in favour to 172 against — with the Liberals, NDP and Green Party members opposed.
In a statement, the Bloc accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Official Languages Minister Melanie Joly of failing to act to counter the decline of the French language in Quebec. “[They] have a big credibility deficit,” MP Mario Beaulieu, the Bloc’s critic for official languages declared.
Last week, Joly proposed several new measures to achieve what the government calls “substantive equality” of both official languages. Among the proposals, the federal Liberals proposed giving workers employed by companies under federal jurisdictions in Quebec the right to work in French, as well as those in other regions of the country with a strong francophone presence.
Earlier: Bloc leader explains bill on French language proficiency
Right now, the Citizenship Act states that applicants aged 18 to 54 must demonstrate an adequate knowledge of one of the official languages of Canada before obtaining citizenship. The Bloc campaigned in 2019 to change the law so that those residing in Quebec need to demonstrate only knowledge of French.
The bill also suggested that anyone 18 to 65 should have to demonstrate their language capability.
Several dozen Grit MPs sought to register their objection to the bill en français.
Over on the Conservative side, less French was spoken but all but one vote — New Brunswick MP John Williamson — lined up with the Bloc.
Ontario MP Marilyn Gladu, who registered her support in French, told HuffPost Canada there are about 8,000 francophones in her Sarnia–Lambton riding, and they’re seeking a bilingual designation from the province to obtain French-language services in the region. “This is an important issue,” she said.
“I think it is important to protect the French language in Canada, especially in Quebec.”
As someone who previously travelled frequently to Quebec for work, Gladu said, she believes receiving services in French is particularly important.
“Our party supports strengthening the French language in Canada,” she said, “and we would like to see this bill go to committee.”
British Columbia MP Dan Albas told HuffPost Canada that he had concerns about the bill’s changing the maximum age for requiring linguistic knowledge to 65 from 54 but felt that the bill “warrants study at committee.”
That line was also repeated by Quebec MP Pierre Paul-Hus, who told HuffPost that while the bill has the commendable objective of protecting French, it might be hard to impose language requirements on those 54 to 65, “because the change can be difficult for new arrivals.”
That said, he added that his party believes the bill should be sent to committee and amended.
Pressed about his personal opinion on the bill, Paul-Hus said he was “before anything else, a Quebecer who is proud of his francophone heritage.
“And I want Quebec to remain that way,” he said, in French.
During a debate in the House of Commons last fall, Bérubé said her bill’s objective was to ensure that anyone who becomes a citizen and resides in Quebec can “integrate into their host society.”
“In Quebec, the common language is French. The purpose of the [province’s] Charter of the French Language is to make French the official and common language of Quebec,” she said. “Right now, a permanent resident who wants to become a citizen and reside in Quebec could do so without knowing a single word of French.”
‘Most immigrants who live in Quebec speak French,’ says Liberal MP
The Liberals’ response came from Soraya Martinez Ferrada, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship. She spoke of her own experience arriving in Quebec as a political refugee, and seeing her single mother and grandparents take French classes.
“We all received our citizenship before we could speak French. Today, my children and my cousins are all young Quebec francophones who work and study in French. That was possible in 1980, and I think it is still possible today,” she said.
Martinez Ferrada said the federal government is determined to help all newcomers obtain the language skills they need to integrate into their host community and noted that Quebec already selects its economic-class immigrants.
“Most immigrants who live in Quebec speak French. Census data show that, 10 years after they arrive in Canada, 90.5 per cent of economic immigrants, 71.1 per cent of immigrants under the family reunification program and 84.3 per cent of refugees speak French,” she said during the bill’s only debate in November.
Montreal MP Anthony Housefather told HuffPost that he believes the current requirement — to have adequate knowledge of French or English no matter where you are in the country should stay that way.
“We live in a bilingual country and when becoming a citizen you should be able to do this in French or English anywhere in Canada you happen to live,” he said. “These qualifications for citizenship should not be different based on the province or territory someone happens to live in.”
Housefather added that the Tories’ position was “very much a reversal on previous Conservative positions on Quebec and language issues, which is consistently happening these days to compete with the Bloc.”
Tories have high hopes in Quebec
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has made no secret that his goal is to obtain 30 seats in Quebec during the next election. The party currently has 10. For the Liberals and the Tories, securing a large portion of Quebec’s 78 seats is often seen as a ticket to a majority government.
Manitoba Conservative MP Raquel Dancho told the Commons last fall in declaring the Tories’ support for the bill that the Conservatives were doing so because they have “great respect for the Quebec nation and understand the cultural importance of protecting the French language.
“The Conservatives are offering Quebeckers a serious alternative to the Liberals. We are the only ones who can beat them in the next election and form the next government,” she said.
But standing in either party’s way is a popular Bloc Québécois, which currently has 32 seats and, according to the latest Angus Reid survey, 29 per cent support among respondents, compared with 31 per cent for the Liberals and 18 per cent for the Conservatives.
The Liberals tried to quash a previous version of the Bloc’s bill back in 2018. Bill C-421 — as it was then called — was deemed by a subcommittee to be unconstitutional and non-votable. The Bloc appealed and a secret vote was held in the House that the Liberals — who had a majority of the seats back then — were successful in defeating.
Three years ago, things were different.
The Conservatives did not participate in the bill’s only debate.
Bloc bill riddled with errors, says lone Quebec NDP MP
Pierre Nantel, at the time an NDP MP, spoke in favour of the bill, saying his party’s Quebec caucus would surely have sent the bill to committee for further study if it had been given a chance.
“It is shameful and disrespectful for any Quebec MP to ignore the vulnerability and value of Quebeckers’ quiet nationalism and to fail to proudly defend Quebec’s distinct identity,” Nantel said in the chamber. (Nantel was later dumped by the NDP and was defeated running as a Green candidate in the 2019 election.)
This time round, the party’s lone Quebec MP, Alexandre Boulerice, told HuffPost the Bloc’s bill is riddled with errors and he doesn’t think his party’s support in the province will suffer because of the New Democrats’ opposition.
For example, Boulerice said, the bill doesn’t take into account future interprovincial moves, doesn’t make note that Quebec already gives francophones priority through its economic immigrants, or that it places an unfair and unnecessary burden on those that arrive as refugees.
“La fausse bonne idée quoi,” he wrote, in an email, loosely translated as a bad good idea, or a good idea at first glance.