Quebec is poised to introduce a strict new French language law restricting the use of English in public services in what critics have dubbed a "culture war" on its anglophone residents.
The province’s ruling nationalist party, Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), say the tough measures are “urgently required” for the survival of the French language given the dominance of English in global popular culture.
“It’s nothing against the English Quebecers,” said Quebec’s premier, Francois Legault. "It’s about protecting French."
But the province’s anglophone residents say Bill 96, which is expected to come into force in the next year/2022, discriminates against bilinguals and denies them basic freedoms.
The legislation seeks to unilaterally change the Canadian Constitution to affirm Quebec as a nation and French its official language, using a mechanism designed to shield it from constitutional challenges.
The radical bill proposes more than 200 amendments to the province’s landmark 1977 French-language charter, including stricter requirements for businesses to operate in French and tight limits on the number of francophones who can attend English-language colleges.
Among the most controversial proposals are the extra powers handed to government language inspectors to raid offices and access the computers and phones of any businesses – including media organisations – suspected of violating the new law.
The draconian measures have inflamed the rhetoric around the debate, with prominent Canadian lawyer Anne-France Goldwater comparing the new snooping powers to the "Gestapo".
Simon Jolin-Barrette, the Quebec minister responsible for the French language, tabled the bill in response to studies by Quebec’s French-language office that indicate the number of people who solely use French at home and work is on the decline.
“The time has come to take strong action,” Mr Jolin-Barrette said during recent legislative hearings on the bill.
A bilingual English and French stop sign outside the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa
Taken with the recent passage of a law banning some public sector workers from wearing religious dress or symbols, Quebec’s multi-lingual residents say the measures are a systematic attempt to appease populist, nationalist views in the province.
Pearl Eliadis, a law professor at Montreal’s McGill University, said the legislation is the latest in a years-long push to effectively authorise "blatant discrimination against religious minorities in Quebec".
Prof Eliadis said that while it was important to have protections in place for the French language, with Bill 96, "Quebec is starting to drift off into territory where they’re really prepared to take pretty much any measures, sometimes outside the law … to achieve that goal."
"It’s not entirely clear to me that the world understands how radical this is," she added.
The Quebec Community Groups Network, an umbrella organisation for English-language community groups, has warned Bill 96 would also harm the province’s economy by encouraging businesses to relocate to other parts of the country.
"It would have a significant impact on the relationship between Quebec and Canada,” said Marlene Jennings, the network’s president.
The debate over the language law is focused on Montreal, the province’s most cosmopolitan city and home to its largest English-speaking minority.
Tourists on Petit Champlain Street, in Old Quebec City. Bill 96 would impose stricter requirements for businesses to operate in French
The city has long resisted the provincial government’s attempts to crack down on its interlacing of French and English – resoundly rejecting a previous push to replace Montreal’s popular bilingual greeting, “bonjour-hi” in favour of a simple "bonjour".
A poll by the Angus-Reid instutute in December revealed a sharp divide over the debate, with 95 percent of anglophone Quebecers opposing Bill 96 and 77 per cent of francophones supporting it.
But the law is not universally supported by the province’s French speakers. Yanick Labrie, an economist with the Fraser Institute, has argued that the legislation will also negatively impact native French speakers like himself.
He takes umbrage with the fact that Bill 96 will limit admissions to Quebec’s English-language junior colleges (CEGEPS), by capping the proportion of students in the province who can attend them and prioritising the admission of English-speaking teenagers.
"This quota is going to basically penalise francophones," he told The Telegraph. "It’s very surprising – and it’s going to reduce their earning potential."
Mr Labrie says Quebecers’ fears over a French language crisis are "overblown", arguing that census data shows the number of francophones has not declined in the last two decades, rather that the number of mulit-linguals has increased.
"People are afraid to talk against the bill because of its popularity. But I’m a French speaker and wherever I go, I can be served in French. It’s clearly not the type of crisis that we’ve heard [from politicians]," he added.