A bilingual city-state? Mayoral candidate proposes major language changes in Montreal

Balarama Holness aims to recognize English as the city’s second official language

Mouvement Montréal party leader Balarama Holness will recognize the city as officially bilingual, if elected mayor in the municipal election on Nov. 6 and 7. This proposal has emerged as Quebec prepares for Bill 96 to strengthen the role of French across the province.

Holness’ plan would ensure that all services on the island of Montreal are provided in both French and English. This includes the city’s commercial and tourism sectors, as well as official documentation from the municipality.

“When people arrive in Montreal, whether they’re speaking English or French, we want them to feel comfortable and don’t want them to struggle,” said Matthew Kerr, Mouvement Montréal’s mayoral candidate for the CDN/NDG borough.

Kerr added that his borough would benefit economically from recognized bilingualism. He expects the locals to open more businesses as it would be more convenient to acquire permits and deal with paperwork, as well as cater to a community that is already bilingual.

Fifty-five per cent of Montreal’s population speaks both English and French according to the 2016 census, with nearly 850,000 residents knowing at least three languages. Despite the city’s linguistic diversity, however, French remains the most dominant language in the city with two-thirds of Montrealers calling it their mother tongue.

Still, many francophone and Quebec-oriented organizations perceive bilingualism as a threat to Montreal’s cultural identity, fearing that French may become vulnerable if English gains the same legal status.

“French is already lacking protection at the legislative level,” said Marie-Anne Alepin, president of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal (SSJB), in an interview with The Concordian. “We see the numbers, French is declining — and [Montrealers] can see this with their own eyes. When they shop downtown, half the time they will be served solely in English,” Alepin added.

To further solidify the role of French in the province, the Quebec National Assembly presented Bill 96 in May, which is set to affirm on a constitutional level that French is the only official language of the province.

Expected to become law by the end of 2021, Bill 96 will now require businesses with 25 to 49 employees to operate in French — a rule that only applies to companies with over 50 employees as of now. Government agencies will be required to use French exclusively in both oral and written communication, which also includes newly-arrived immigrants after the first six months of their stay in Quebec.

The Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) is expected to gain more power, which already enforces the language law in Montreal’s food service and retail sectors. Earlier this year, two Montreal businesses were fined $1,500 for the lack of French on their websites, while a restaurant in Mile End received the same penalty in 2020 for having an English-only outdoor sign.

“But even the best law in the world won’t get around the fact that English is an appealing language, especially for the younger generation. […] With all the TV series and digital platforms, the interest for English is immense,” said Alepin.

The SSJB president specified that, while American culture is beautiful, it does not represent the culture of Quebec. As a solution to the linguistic challenge, Alepin proposes a mass investment in awareness campaigns as well as in French-language cultural projects and entertainment, which would make the language of Molière more attractive and competitive.

When it comes to investments, Holness argues that Montreal needs to gain a special city-state status as the city does not fully benefit from the revenue it generates.

“That $200 billion GDP has to come back to actually invest here in Montreal, whether it’s [in] infrastructure, small businesses and any other area of public life,” the candidate said in September after filing his application for the mayoral race.

With the annual municipal budget being just under $6.2 billion in 2021, Holness hopes to make use of taxation powers and create a more Montreal-oriented economy, following the example of Washington D.C. or Berlin.

In the municipal race, Holness currently stands in third place with 10 per cent of Montrealers supporting his candidacy, according to the most recent poll from Léger. The incumbent Valérie Plante of Projet Montréal is leading the race with 36 per cent of the vote, while Denis Coderre from Ensemble Montréal stays just one point behind.


Graphic by James Fay.

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