Anglophones in Quebec are frustrated with new policies on English

University tuition rise and new prohibitions on English have many wondering if they still want to live in the French-speaking province

Today's expression: Squeezed out
Explore more: Lesson #675
May 16, 2024:

Quebec, Canada's only French-speaking province, has long protected its language. But now, some English speakers say the province has gone too far. New policies by the provincial government restrict the use of English in certain circumstances. And Quebec recently raised tuition for out-of-province students by 33%, a direct hit at Montreal's two biggest international universities.

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Is Quebec becoming less tolerant of English?

Lesson summary

Hi there everyone, I’m Jeff and this is Plain English, where we help you upgrade your English with stories about current events and trending topics. Not always, but often we pick stories from the English-speaking world. But this time, we’ve picked a story about English speaking itself.

As you learned in lesson 674 , Quebec is a monolingual province in a bilingual country. At a national level, Canada provides services in English and French. But the majority of Canadian provinces and territories provide services primarily in English. Far more native French speakers are bilingual than are English speakers. And Quebec fiercely protects its French heritage.

But some say this time, it has gone too far. I’ll tell you about two changes in Quebec that have English speakers wondering whether they’re welcome in Canada’s second-largest province.

In the second half of the lesson, I’ll show you what it means to be “squeezed out.”

This is lesson number 675 of Plain English. And that means you can find the full lesson transcript and all the lesson resources at PlainEnglish.com/675.

I think we’re ready. Let’s dive in.

Quebec is squeezing Montreal’s English speakers

Quebec is famous for defending its French-speaking tradition . It is the only Canadian province that has an official policy of monolingualism. But Quebec is a remarkably bilingual place. Many francophones speak English; many anglophones speak French. Lots and lots of families have both native French- and English-speakers in the household.

But still, defenders of French feel their own language is increasingly being squeezed out by English, especially in Montreal, Canada’s second-largest city. And so the province of Quebec has been taking steps to protect the French language within its borders. Critics, though, say the new steps are doing more than just protecting French. They say they’re punishing English speakers—and all Quebeckers will suffer the consequences.

Let’s take a look at two recent actions. The first is called Bill 96; this province-level law passed in mid-2022 and went into effect starting in 2023. The second action was an administrative change to university tuition fees; that was announced at the end of 2023.

Start will Bill 96. This law includes a number of new language-related regulations on businesses.

First, companies with more than five employees will have to report to the government how many employees are unable to communicate in French. The government will then publish this in a language registry. Some companies fear they’ll be shamed for not having enough French speakers. Others lament the additional burden of asking their employees about their French skills and then filling out yet another government form.

Next, contracts. Certain contracts now have to be presented in French first. An adhesion contract is a contract that is pre-written and that a consumer simply signs—these are things like insurance policies and cell phone contracts.

Previously, this could be done all in English. Now, the contract must be presented in French first. Only if a customer refuses the French version can an English version be signed. No English speaker will be forced to sign a contract in French, but the new law represents an additional few steps for companies that offer contracts like this.

Product labeling requirements will soon be stricter. Before, product warranties and instructions were required to come in both languages, which is fair enough. But now, even simple buttons on appliances like “on,” “off,” and “play” will be forbidden if they don’t also include the French translation.

Business groups say they’ll have no choice but to remove products from the Quebec market, since not every product can be completely relabeled. Manufacturers rely on component parts from suppliers. So even if the makers of appliances wanted to put all their inscriptions in French, they probably can’t even do that.

Think about the cleaning solution that has a knob that says “open/close.” Or think about a car’s dashboard. Or the buttons on a treadmill. Those parts are all made by suppliers, by companies other than the manufacturer. And the suppliers are not all going to produce new versions of all their products, just to serve a Canadian province with only eight million people.

Finally, the most confusing and most controversial. Civil servants—government employees—will be required to do their jobs entirely in French. The law says that they must “speak and write exclusively in French, except in certain cases.” Government employees are required to talk to citizens in French, unless the citizen has an approved reason to speak in English. And that’s even if both sides can and want to speak in English. In many cases, they won’t be allowed to.

So that’s Bill 96. It’s being implemented in phases.

The next change happened late last year, 2023. The provincial government announced it was increasing university tuition for Canadian students from other provinces. This was clearly a shot at universities that teach in English.

In Canada, the provinces subsidize the cost of university education. Residents of the province pay less than residents of other provinces pay. Most provinces in Canada charge out-of-province Canadians $6,000 to $9,000 per year. But this year, Quebec decided to raise its out-of-province tuition charge by 33 percent, from $9,000 to $12,000 per year.

Not only that , but there are onerous new French-language requirements for students that come from outside Quebec. Soon, 80 percent of out-of-province students would have to learn intermediate French by the time they graduate. That includes international students.

This is a problem for Montreal’s two internationally acclaimed universities, McGill and Concordia. They attract students from all over Canada, yes, but also from all over the world. Over 150 countries are represented at McGill. Both universities teach in English.

Now, those universities are 33 percent more expensive for non-Quebec Canadians. And students from other countries will now have to learn French, whether they want to or not.

That’s not all. Quebec will increase the tuition fee on international students and direct the additional funds to French-language universities.

Quebec says that the new tuition policy is “moderate” and that it’s necessary to preserve the French-language heritage in the province. The Quebec government says that the tuition hike is justified because graduates often leave the province after they finish school: why should Quebec taxpayers support Ontario students who come to Quebec for four years and then go back where they came from?

So what is the real-world impact of these two new policies—Bill 96 and the tuition increase?

Bill 96 appears to be more performative than anything. It adds additional burdens and costs to businesses—printing double versions of contracts, for example, and reporting on the language skills of its employees. Some people will have to get service in French when they prefer it in English; this will be annoying and discriminatory, but not devastating.

The impact on product labeling could be stronger. Many companies say they’ll have no choice but to stop selling products in Quebec because they can’t change every label to comply with the law. Quebeckers may have a lot less choice when they do their shopping in the future.

A long article in Maclean’s , a popular Canadian newsmagazine, detailed why a bilingual man and his English-speaking wife no longer felt comfortable raising their family in Quebec. Others have argued the same thing. But it’s hard to tell whether anglophones will really move away in significant numbers or if they’ll just adapt.

The impact on the universities is real. Applications from out-of-province students have dropped since the plan was announced last year—McGill applications are down 25 percent; at Concordia, it’s a 39 percent decrease.

This is understandable. First, some students from Ontario and other provinces will have decided that the extra cost is just not worth it.

International students may be deterred by the language requirements. Imagine coming from China, Iran, South Korea, or Turkey: now, those students will have to take time away from their major fields of study to learn French, whether they want to or not. And this is after having learned English.

Both universities are suing the provincial government, saying the tuition hikes and language requirements are discriminatory.

Jeff’s take

I tried to be fair before, but here’s my opinion. I think Bill 96 is a clownish, cartoonish, defensive, petty, pointless law. It’s a primal scream of frustration in the form of legislation. Are there really French speakers staring at their microwaves and washing machines, looking at the “on” button, wondering what the button does? Should all of Quebec have less consumer choice because the government insists the words “on” and “off” be translated?

It is now an illegal act for an English-speaking government employee to speak to an English-speaking citizen in English if that citizen was born in Quebec. This is all just pointless theater that will complicate people’s lives and raise their costs, all without doing anything to make people want to speak more French.

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Expression: Squeezed out