21st September 2023

Quebec’s new law to strengthen French can expose people to exploitation at the most sensitive times in their lives.

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The last thing Jessica expected to affect her split from her abusive spouse of two decades was Bill 96.

While her separation agreement from her francophone common-law husband was drawn up in English as she had requested, she was told by the notary dividing their assets that the agreement on the sale of a property they co-owned could only be done in French as a result of the new law.

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Jessica is an anglophone, born elsewhere in Canada, who has lived most of her adult life in Quebec. She speaks French, works in French every day and sends her children to French school. But she didn’t feel comfortable finalizing this aspect of her breakup in her second language.

“My grasp of French is pretty good, but legal terms — eh — a little iffy sometimes,” said Jessica, using a pseudonym to protect her identity and privacy. “And so, because of some circumstances, I was forced to go through with this transaction in French, not fully understanding what I was signing, being in a situation where I was forced to trust the notary that my abusive ex chose and her translation of it.”

She was right to be wary.

The first version of the document she was asked to sign would have shortchanged her by including money she was owed for child support in the payout from the sale.

“This is after 23 years of an abusive relationship where he exerted all kinds of control over me, mostly financial,” she said. “And unfortunately, that continued through that transaction. Because of my French language skills, I was able to recognize some things that he was trying to do that were not OK. … But, again, I had asked that everything be done in English so I could more easily understand what was happening, and that was denied to me.”

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Perhaps one could argue all’s well that ends well in Jessica’s case because the matter was rectified. But her experience is a cautionary tale about how Quebec’s new law to strengthen French can expose people to exploitation at the most sensitive times in their lives.

“It leaves people vulnerable to continued abuse,” she said. “Had I not had a good grasp of French, I wouldn’t have picked it up.”

And what about defenceless people in even more precarious situations? When Bill 96 was adopted just over a year ago, the Fédération des maisons d’hébergement pour femmes warned that the most vulnerable of abused women would experience a disproportionate impact of the law’s new restrictions.

“It is vital to remember the realities and living conditions of allophone and immigrant women who have experienced violence,” the group said in a statement. “The obstacles are already numerous when it comes to finding services, assessing, intervening and referring traumatized women when they don’t share our language.”

Melpa Kamateros, the executive director of the Shield of Athena shelters in Montreal and Laval, said there has long been a barrier to reaching and helping victims of domestic violence who speak diverse languages, and Bill 96 makes it that much harder.

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“Language has always been an issue,” Kamateros said in an interview. “If we put English in the same bucket, it’s going to be the same thing.”

Bill 96 doesn’t prevent family, youth protection or criminal cases from being conducted in English. But it does apply to real estate transactions and civil litigation – even when all parties in the case are English-speaking. Any English documentation filed in such matters must be accompanied by a certified French translation, which increases costs and contributes to delays.

In family law, custody arrangements, alimony payments, domestic violence cases, joint custody arrangements, the partition of the family residence, the division of business assets, succession debates, child support and again youth protection matters can be handled in English. But the fact that official government documents and communication with the state must now be in French is spilling over into family cases in unexpected ways, said Montreal lawyer Anne-France Goldwater. She offered several examples.

“We have a file where the parties who have a conflictual custody situation but not a whole lot of money agreed to have a psychosocial expertise through the courthouse, where the service is free,” Goldwater said. “They’re English-speaking; the children are English-speaking. We said at the beginning we’re going to want the expertise to be in English so they can understand it. There are some mental health issues involved in the file.

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“We got the report not long ago and it’s in French, which the parties don’t understand because it’s a specialized language,” she continued. “The service of psychosocial expertise at the courthouse is considered a part of the provincial government, ergo it all has to be French.”

Another matter Goldwater has been involved with for several years revolves around whether some English-speaking children should be educated at a religious school.

“And the whole time we’ve been before the court, all documents coming out of the school board … and the youth protection case workers have all been in English,” she said. “Bill 96 comes along and the latest documents we got this year are all in French. Now, I don’t have to tell you there’s a fundamental right when you’re facing the state in court to have a trial in a language of your choice.”

Goldwater is an outspoken opponent of Bill 96; she calls it “the most unconstitutional document I’ve ever seen.” But she said the courts have always been an important bulwark against government policies that cause collateral damage for minorities and the marginalized — and has faith they will remain so.

The additional hurdles Bill 96 erects to accessing justice in English may be largely administrative, but they are not innocuous.

“The problem is documents emanating from the provincial government have to be in French, and obviously that sacrifices the fundamental rights of ordinary Canadian citizens,” she said.

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