Echoes of Big Brother at home and at work
Latest regulations that have taken effect under Bill 96 are very troubling
Nineteen Eighty-four is George Orwell's renowned dystopian social science fiction novel and cautionary tale. Since its publication in 1949, the term Big Brother has commonly been used to describe any prying or overly controlling authority figure and attempts by government to increase surveillance.
This past Thursday, several provisions of Bill 96 — the law that beefs up Quebec's French Language Charter — came into effect, one year after the bill was sanctioned into law. One of the new regulations that seems to have caught many by surprise is the change to Quebec's “Act respecting the legal publicity of enterprises.”
Quebec companies with as few as five employees are now obliged to report to the government what proportion of their employees are “not capable of communicating in French.” This information will then be available to the public on the government's online registry of companies, which includes details about the type of business and the names and home addresses of its directors and owners.
Also conjuring up the notion of Big Brother is the number of times Premier François Legault sounds the alarm about the decline in the percentage of people who speak French in the privacy of their home. It's easy to see this as scapegoating immigrants who — even if they're fluent in French — might speak their language of origin at home.
Many anglophones and allophones who speak English at home also speak perfect French. Emphasizing this particular statistic seems more a political ploy to mislead the public about the true health of French in Quebec. It may also suggest Legault is less preoccupied with the language itself than with the declining percentage of old-stock francophones, which further exacerbates an us versus them narrative.
Focusing on what people do at home or forcing small mom and pop businesses to label employees who can't speak French is troubling.
Most non-francophones agree that French must be protected and promoted to ensure its survival. Most francophones do not support the notion that protecting French requires the government to portray the rest of us, or anything English, as a threat that must be outed. But there is a minority of zealots who are arguably being emboldened by Bill 96 and given means through additional provisions to potentially disrupt social peace and intimidate people. Bill 96 expands the framework for snitching and lodging anonymous complaints for supposed violations to the law without any proof or accountability.
In its recent annual report, the Office Québécois de la langue française indicated language complaints soared to 6,884 over the past year. Media reports jumped to the conclusion the “explosion” of complaints reflects a growing concern by Quebecers about the survival of their language. But the OQLF refuses to release the actual number of individuals who lodged those complaints.
The new rule impacting small businesses risks hoisting vigilantism to a new level. Advertising which companies may not be French enough, and providing personal information about the heads of those companies, is unprecedented and could breed harassment.
It will also likely create ethical dilemmas and tension within workplaces. Will employers start testing their employees to determine French proficiency? Will they lie, in reporting to the government, for fear of reprisals? Will language police engage in random raids to investigate?
Contrast all this with another provision of Bill 96 that came into effect this week. A new agency, Francisation Québec, will co-ordinate free French lessons for anybody who wants to benefit. That's more the type of initiative the government should focus on — improving the desire to learn French and strengthening unity around the language, rather than intimidating Quebecers into complying through fear.
Robert Libman is an architect and building planning consultant who has served as Equality Party leader and MNA, as mayor of Côte-st-luc and as a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a Conservative candidate in the 2015 federal election. twitter.com/robertlibman