OTTAWA — Quebec’s legislature on Tuesday passed a law to reinforce the primacy of the French language, limiting access to public services in English and enhancing government powers to enforce compliance, despite objections from some of the province’s English speakers, Indigenous people and members of other linguistic minorities.
The provincial government says the law is needed to preserve the status of Quebec as the largest French-speaking enclave in the Americas, while critics call it an attempt to create a monoculture within a proudly multicultural country. The national government says that about 85 percent of Quebec’s more than 8 million people speak French as their primary language.
Expanding on existing language law, the legislation provides that immigrants to Canada who settle in Quebec will not be able to deal with the government in English or other languages more than six months after their arrival.
Most small and medium-size businesses will require government certification that they operate in French, as larger companies have for years. And the new law will raise the bar that a company must meet to justify requiring that new workers speak or read languages other than French.
Government language inspectors will have expanded powers to raid offices and search private computers and smartphones while investigating compliance with the law.
Enrollment at English-language junior colleges will be capped, while new French language course requirements will be introduced at those schools. At those colleges, students whose primary language is not English will also have to pass a French proficiency test to graduate.
While English speakers will still have the right to court hearings in their language, the new law changes how bilingual judges will be appointed, leading to concerns that they will dwindle in number over time.
There are also concerns, strongly rejected by the provincial government, that the law will limit the ability of doctors and other medical professionals to speak with some patients in any language other than French.
“This law is the most important reform for the status of the French language since the adoption of Bill 101 in 1977,” the law establishing French as the province’s official language, François Legault, the premier of Quebec, said in a statement posted on Facebook. “It is my responsibility as premier of the only government in North America representing a Francophone majority to ensure that French remains our only official language, our common language.”
To defend the law against potential legal challenges, Quebec’s government invoked a clause in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms that exempts the legislation from compliance with Canada’s Constitution.
In recent weeks thousands of Quebecers from the province’s English-speaking, immigrant and Indigenous communities have protested the law.
Shortly before the province’s National Assembly in Quebec City passed the bill, Julius Grey, a prominent human rights lawyer in the province, called it “the most gratuitous use of power I’ve ever seen.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Vancouver, British Columbia, that the federal government will carefully review the law and its implementation but avoided questions about its involvement in any legal challenges.
“We continue to look very carefully at what the final form of this will take and we will base our decision on what we see as the need to keep minorities protected across the country,” Mr. Trudeau said.