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The Quebec nationalist fight to restrict the use of English in Quebec

MILES PARKS, HOST:

Lawmakers in the Canadian province of Quebec this week adopted a law tightening mandates on the use of French in government and in businesses. But debate over some of the most contentious provisions of the bill are far from over, as Emma Jacobs reports from Montreal.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: On a weekday evening in downtown Montreal, the air is punctuated with the sounds of cheers and chanting, rallygoers holding signs in French and English protesting the legislation known as Bill 96.

AUGUSTINA PEDROCCA: That's completely unrealistic.

JACOBS: Like others, 22-year-old Augustina Pedrocca is here to protest a section of Bill 96 that will require new immigrants to exclusively use French in their interactions with government within six months. As an immigrant herself, she's worried that for many, like her mother, the law will make day-to-day life more complicated.

PEDROCCA: While she tries to maintain French, sometimes people need to eat. People need to pay their rent.

JACOBS: Bill 96 has caused an uproar in Quebec, where 85% of people primarily speak French, but there have also been English-speaking communities and tensions over language for centuries. Still, many here say the furor over this bill is unlike anything they've seen in decades.

FRANCOIS LEGAULT: There will always be an attraction to English in North America.

JACOBS: The leader of the province, Premier Francois Legault, has defended the bill. He says Quebec needs the changes to preserve its French language and culture.

LEGAULT: And we have to be careful if we want that our children and grandchildren speak French.

JACOBS: Bill 96 will bring about a whole host of changes across the provincial bureaucracy, including in education and health care. Many are worried that it will further marginalize vulnerable groups.

NAKUSET: We're afraid - right? - because we're already having issues with accessing services now. It's going to be worse later.

JACOBS: Nakuset - she goes by just her traditional first name - runs a shelter for Indigenous women in Montreal. She says only 10% speak French as a first language, and already some English speakers have been turned away from nearby hospitals.

NAKUSET: We already got 500 million obstacles against us. This new law is only going to make it harder for our people. And you wonder, who is this benefiting?

JACOBS: Indigenous students will also be impacted by new caps on enrollment in English schools across the province.

AMANDA PERRY: I'm hearing French in the hallways every day. I'm hearing French in my classes.

JACOBS: Amanda Perry teaches literature in one of those English junior colleges where students will also have to take more courses in French.

PERRY: So this has put us in this state of kind of panicked speculation in terms of what's going to happen to us and what's going to happen to the students.

JACOBS: Meanwhile, Premier Legault has said that many concerns about the law were being fueled by disinformation.

LEGAULT: I want to be very clear. There's no change at all in the actual situation of services given to anglophones and immigrants in English in our health care system.

JACOBS: Bill 96 may have passed, but the battle isn't over yet, says Robert Leckey, dean of the McGill University Law School in Montreal. He says the text of the law leaves a lot to be worked out in implementation.

ROBERT LECKEY: In any other province, a Francophone who finds a French-speaking service provider or a Ukrainian refugee who finds a Ukrainian-speaking service provider, they're able to use those languages. Bill 96 says, don't. And Bill 96 contemplates that people other than the health care provider and the client, someone else could file a complaint.

JACOBS: The use of French in large businesses is already strictly policed, but this law takes it further, including allowing for warrantless searches by language enforcement officers. Back at the downtown rally, speakers tell the crowd they're already preparing legal challenges.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Court challenges are in the works.

JACOBS: This rally, says one, is only the beginning. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Montreal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emma Jacobs