In the United States it is, if you will, a self-evident truth that the place is a “nation,” and, what’s more, it’s a “nation under god,” if you’re pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes.

Here in the soon-to-be frozen north, the notion of “nation” is much more nuanced, or perhaps loaded is the better term, “nation” traditionally being a code word for Quebec’s aspirations, whether within or without the rest of Canada.

The meaning of “nation” has been on the political front burner recently because of the current Quebec government’s new legislation to toughen laws affecting the use of French in the province. It’s called Bill 96, and reading it, depending on your temperament or background, could be either an instant cure for insomnia or a five-alarm ooga horn alert.

Bill 96, or officially, “An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec,” is a massive, sweeping, contentious, provocative, confusing, all-round grab bag of measures, every one of which is designed, according to the Coalition Avenir Québec government of François Legault, to combat a perceived decline in the use of French in the workplace, educational institutions, and in the overall culture of Quebec.

Bill 96 is the first major overhaul of Bill 101, the seminal language legislation the Parti Quebecois government passed in 1977, a year after the sovereignist party first won election.

On top of the myriad changes toughening existing laws and a slate of new measures contained in the 100-page document, there are the big picture political and symbolic gestures, most notably a proposed unilateral amendment to the Canadian Constitution declaring that French is the sole and official language of Quebec and that Quebecers constitute a “nation.”

Before anyone sets their hair on fire about these statements, it’s important to know they are by and large true and have been endorsed in one way or another by politicians hailing from outside Quebec dating back more than 50 years.

Indeed, perhaps to the disappointment of some in the Legault government spoiling for an ugly fight with the federal government, leaders of all federal parties essentially shrugged and accepted the proposed constitutional amendment as more or less a reiteration of the obvious.

Some constitutional/legal commentators, however, see declaring Quebecers a “nation” as a kind of carte blanche for the province to lay claim to more powers. Others see a clear distinction between “Quebecers” as a group of people sharing a common language and culture etc, and Quebec, a political and territorial entity. The enshrinement of “nation” in the constitution, therefore, does not constitute some kind of declaration of independence for the province.

While the “nation” thing may or may not be benign, there is much in Bill 96 that is stirring deep and real concern in many quarters ranging from the English-speaking community to the legal establishment to business interests. The bill took a beating when it went through parliamentary hearings recently, but the government is showing no sign of backing down from controversial measures.

Among the many measures that concern the business community there is the requirement that all businesses with 25 or more employees function entirely in French, whereas previously it was a minimum 50. There’s also the requirement that “trademark” commercial signage include predominantly larger French lettering explaining what the store sells.

On the education front, the government wants to cap at 17.5 percent the number of francophone students allowed to attend English-language colleges, which is normally the first opportunity French-speaking students can study in English following high school.

Another is the change to the system allowing foreign nationals on temporary work permits to send their children to English schools. Currently, such permits are generally renewable after three years; Bill 96 would remove that renewability. That would likely have an impact on Quebec businesses and institutions trying to recruit sought-after professionals from around the world.

Other measures would limit access to English-language services for immigrants, require municipalities to vote to affirm their bilingual status, and remove the requirement that provincial judges be bilingual.

The government has also chosen to use the so-called “notwithstanding” clause of the Canadian Constitution to shield some measures in Bill 96 from court challenges.

With the Legault’s government enjoying almost freakishly high approval ratings, it’s unlikely Bill 96 will face much serious resistance on its way to supposedly strengthening the only official language in the Quebec “nation.”

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at


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