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PQ tables weaker-than-planned language bill

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QUEBEC - The Parti Quebecois government tabled new language legislation Wednesday that contained scores of changes far milder than what the party had recently campaigned on.

The legislation would not extend language restrictions to post-secondary institutions, as the PQ promised in the recent election campaign.

Nor would it extend them to businesses with as few as 10 employees.

What the 36-page bill would do, if adopted, is make more modest amendments to many clauses in existing laws to increase French-language requirements in schools, businesses and immigration policy.

"We have tabled legislation that is balanced and responsible," said Diane De Courcy, the minister responsible for the bill.

If adopted the legislation would introduce French-language requirements for companies with more than 25 employees — which is stricter than the traditional level of 50 employees.

It also says companies would not be able to force employees to speak a language other than French, unless the job specifically required it. It offers a complaints mechanism for people who believe their right to work in French is affected.

De Courcy said it's "unacceptable" that some French-speaking immigrants are promised they can come to Quebec and work in that language and, upon arriving, discover they can't find jobs until they learn English.

Opposition parties expressed some reservations.

The Liberals said they were concerned over new discretionary powers that would allow the minister responsible for language to intervene in investigations. The Coalition said it feared the additional red tape for businesses. One of those parties will need to support the bill for it to pass.

Bill 14 would also add additional "points" to immigration applications from people who speak French; introduce a new French exam in high schools and colleges; help introduce French "familiarization" in daycare; and close a loophole in the language law that allows francophone military families to send children to English school.

The minority government had been hinting for weeks that its language legislation would be weaker than what it had campaigned on because its minority status limited its ability to get a tough bill through the legislature.

"This is called 'realpolitik'," Premier Pauline Marois said Wednesday.

She explained that with a minority government, she didn't see much hope of pushing through the more ambitious changes. She said the PQ could always revisit the issue in "three, four or five years" if the current bill fails to have the desired effect.

A nationalist push for a new language law emerged in recent years amid a steady drumbeat of news reports about Montreal companies forcing all employees to hold meetings in English because a minority can't speak French.

The frequency of such news reports mushroomed last year after controversies in Ottawa over the federal government appointing people who couldn't speak French to key positions — such as one senior government spokesperson, a Supreme Court justice and an auditor general.

The PQ picked up on the theme in its election campaign and promised to bar access to post-secondary English college to non-anglophones. It also raised the prospect of applying the language law to family businesses by saying its new bill would affect companies with more than 10 employees.

Neither of those provisions appears in the new bill.

The minister picked up on the theme of linguistic decline during a speech where she introduced Bill 14.

"The years of French growth are, sadly, behind us," De Courcy said. "We've noticed, especially in the last 15 years, a slide in the use of French, particularly in Montreal. We think we need to act, now."

A new provincial study says the French language has, in fact, made great strides in the workplace over the last 40 years although its use has seen a slight decline in more recent decades.

Marois blamed the trend on twin forces: globalization and Canadian federalism.

She said the demands of the global economy had made English more alluring than ever and, without safeguards, people might see French as redundant.

As for Canada, Marois said the country's bilingual identity sends a muddled message to newcomers about whether they need to learn French in Quebec.

She said Supreme Court of Canada decisions over the years had also weakened Quebec's language laws with respect to education and commerical signs.

"What we wanted (with this bill) was for French to be restored to its rightful place in Quebec — to advance," Marois said.

"If we see in three, four, or five years that we're not making the expected progress (we can introduce more changes)."

Both the premier and her minister took a moment during their speeches Wednesday to address Quebec's anglophones.

Following a tense election campaign, culminating in an election-night shooting outside PQ headquarters, the new government has sought to reassure Anglos that they're not being singled out.

The government says its goal is to protect Quebec's existing English institutions, while ensuring that newcomers are integrated into the French majority.

-With files from Alexander Panetta in Montreal

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