Canada’s snap election this past month was a stark reminder for many of the nation’s residents that the country still has a tricky and contentious relationship with its two official languages, English and French.
Although English is spoken by more than 85% of Canada’s population, the elections featured two French-language debates and just one English-language debate between the candidates running for prime minister. The New York Times noted in its coverage of the debates that the two conducted in French were primarily concerned with issues relating to Québec, while the English-language debate focused on a broader scope of issues.
A focal point of the last debate (conducted in English) was Québec’s recent bills regarding language (Bill 96) and religion (Bill 21). Bill 96 was first proposed earlier this year to much outcry over its de facto requirement that new immigrants to Québec learn to read and write French within two months of arriving in the country. While the government of Québec would provide language accommodations and translations of official communications in the first two months, after that, the government would only communicate with new immigrants in French.
Bill 96 would also affect language requirements for businesses, schools, and government agencies, the latter of which would be required to use French as the sole language of written and spoken communication.
The bills came up in a question to Yves-François Blanchet at the English-language debate on Sept. 9. Blanchet was running as the leader of the Bloc Québécois party. Moderator Shachi Kurl pressed him about his thoughts on the bills, controversially noting that they “marginalize religious minorities, Anglophones, and allophones.” Blanchet pushed back on the question, noting that the bills were not about oppressing these groups but rather supporting “the values of Québec.”
While many outside of Québec found Kurl’s question to be appropriate, about 65% of Quebecers found the question inappropriate, according to a Léger poll conducted after the debate. A report from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation noted that the controversial question may have led to a surge of support for Blanchet among Québec’s residents. In the end, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected once again. This will mark Trudeau’s third term as the country’s prime minister and his second with a minority government. Andrew Warner