BY Oliver Eng & Lana Brady

“When I came to Quebec, I was prepared to learn French,” says Shu Guo. “I just never thought they would use money as a way to force me.”

Guo, a second-year master’s student in computer engineering, still struggles to communicate in French. Studying in Canada has long been his dream, but Guo never anticipated needing to accelerate his studies.

“Normally I wouldn’t be graduating this year. I wanted to take my time and enjoy the university life, but there’s more pressure now.” Guo says, “I took extra summer courses and this semester, I’m taking four classes. My academic advisor called it academic suicide.”

Concordia student Shu Guo in front of the H Building downtown

Shu Guo standing in front of Concordia’s Hall Building. Photo by Oliver Eng.

Quebec passed Bill 96 in June 2022, extending the mandatory use of French as the common and official language in many aspects of public life.

“Once, the French language police came to the restaurant when I was working and started questioning me. I could barely understand what they were saying.” Guo remembers. “I understand why they have these people, but why do they come to places like Chinatown and not somewhere else? They’re targeting us specifically. I don’t go somewhere in Canada and demand to be spoken to in chinese.”

Laurence Guénette is a spokesperson for the Quebec Civil Liberties Union. He says Bill 96 and Bill 21, which bans religious symbols and clothing for public officials, are extremely discriminatory for a multitude of reasons. The biggest one being that both Bills do not respect the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“We really need to keep the focus on the fact that the Quebec charter is also relevant, like our rights are also waived in terms of the Quebec charter,” he says.

Shu Guo having a laugh while studying

Shu Guo relaxes while reviewing a test he just got back. Photo by Oliver Eng.

For Guénette, the idea that Quebec has its own fixed values, and that the society must be built upon these values doesn’t justify eliminating human rights.

“‘I’ve been talking a lot about Quebec, the values of the Quebecers, but values is something I say that’s soft and changing and a little bit unclear,” argues Guénette. “Especially when the human rights charter is offering something much more solid and clear in terms of what we should respect at a collective level.”

Marie-Anne Alepin is the Director of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste society in Montreal and while she acknowledges that Bill 21 and Bill 96 may cause some individuals to feel targeted, she stresses that Quebec’s insistence on a common language must be upheld.

“In Quebec, we have values that celebrate the French language and state secularism. Democratic values of our way of life. To live well together, there was a need to establish clear boundaries. We want it to be fair for everyone.”

English and French media approach reporting on Quebec politics such as Bill 21 differently. Video by Lana Brady.

In 2022, the CAQ won the Quebec provincial election with the largest majority in decades, securing 41 per cent of the popular vote. Alepin points to the election results as concrete proof that the majority of Quebeckers are in fact, in agreement with Bill 21.

“The state must be neutral, and with the laws that have been democratically voted on, there is a history of state secularism and clear instructions regarding religion, and now that they’re in place, they should be respected by everybody,” says Alepin.

The Quebec government used the notwithstanding clause to bypass scrutiny for overriding the right to religious expression and language stated in the Canadian Charter.

A 2021 Léger study found a distinct linguistic split over Bill 21 and Bill 96. Seventy per cent of anglophones who expressed an opinion said the laws were discriminatory. But among those whose first language was French, only 21 per cent felt the same way.

Sylvia Martin-Laforge Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) says “I think that the end goal is to, to ensure a culture of sameness… It’s a social engineering piece of work.”

Ad for promoting the French Language

An ad for learning the french lanuage at Guy-Concordia metro station. Photo by Oliver Eng.

In early 2023, the Quebec government introduced a new term to characterize the notwithstanding clause, opting instead to call it the ‘parliamentary sovereignty clause.’ For Laforge, this strategic move aims to represent the notwithstanding clause in a better light.

“Whenever you want to win something, just try and reframe it into something that you look like the winner. It’s populist and tyranny of the majority,” she says.

Guo is not somebody unfamiliar with populism or secularism, having lived in China for over twenty years. But after experiencing discrimination due to his language, he notes, this isn’t the same Canada he originally thought he was coming to.

Note taking for an exam

Shu Guo taking some notes. Photo by Oliver Eng.

“After being here for a while, I can’t help but feel targeted. Not threatened but I feel like more and more, if you’re not white or Quebecois, you’re not wanted. Most people in China have a good impression of Canada.” Says Guo.

“We come under the impression that this is an accepting, caring and diverse place that will give everybody an equal chance at success.”

Guo isn’t alone. A survey conducted by the Association of Canadian studies in 2022, found that the general sense of belonging as full-fledged members of Quebec society has been on a decline. Especially among members of the Jewish, Sikh and Muslim communities.

Laforge says that for observers on the sideline, the message Quebec is sending is crystal clear.

Percentage of Canadians (mother tongue is French) who believe Bill 21 and draft Bill 96 are discriminatory

Percentage of Canadians (mother tongue is French) who believe Bill 21 and draft Bill 96 are discriminatory. Media by Oliver Eng.

“You would call it proselytizing. You want people to be part of your group, have a common language, recognize the official language, support the culture, the products, the cultural products. And if you are visibly other, or if your traditions are rooted in religion, that’s a threat. They don’t want one religion to be seen while others are not seen. They want everybody to look the same, feel the same, be the same, as long as it’s in support of the Quebec language and culture.”

Main image by Oliver Eng.
Published May 16, 2024.