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Premier of Quebec François Legault sits at a a meeting set-up by Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Montreal, on Dec. 7, 2018.MARTIN OUELLET-DIOTTE/AFP/Getty Images

It’s almost ironic that at a time when a lot of national governments are starting to fear they are losing the levers to protect culture, Quebec Premier François Legault wrapped his new language law in the symbols of nationhood. But it is not an accident.

The insertion of a clause that purports to amend the Constitution to declare that Quebeckers form a nation has constitutional experts questioning its legality and reviving some of the old debates – ugh – about the nature of nationhood.

But putting that in a language law is a bit of a tell. This tug at the heartstrings of Quebec nationalism is in the language law because the bill’s measures aren’t as sweeping as some of Mr. Legault’s supporters might have expected, and it’s hard to sell them as the salve for language anxieties. The truth is, there aren’t a lot of effective language-law levers left.

Mr. Legault, who leads a party that is supposed to move Quebec past debates between sovereigntists and federalists, knows that a lot of Quebeckers want the government to do something – something – to protect French.

Quebec’s anglophone minority is a target, once again – and no one is coming to the rescue

Despite pundits quoting statistics to argue that francophones have nothing to worry about, Quebec isn’t the only place in the world where people fear that, in a globalized internet age, the pull of the English language might erode the place of their own.

Nowadays, promoting French might have more to do with the language of internet sites than shop signs. And as it turns out, many national governments now fret that their powers to influence language and culture are shrinking. Their citizens work in a global business world, and governments that once were able to regulate broadcasting find it harder to influence a digital world – witness the federal government’s tortured efforts to subject Netflix and YouTube to broadcasting laws.

Mr. Legault’s Bill 96 has a hundred pages of measures drafted in the search for something the state could do that would convincingly protect French. There are fewer levers of state left, nation or not.

Quebec’s existing language laws have already pulled the main ones. Bill 101, passed in 1977, did things that really encouraged the use of French. It required the children of newcomers to go to French-language grade schools, to nudge them to settle into the francophone majority. It mandated that the language of work be French, a reaction to the days when it was common for anglo managers to speak English to French workers.

Bill 96 is different. Mr. Legault has proposed measures that will have marginal impact. Some, like the Parti Québécois, wanted more intrusive measures that would have marginal impact.

One chunk of the bill is about setting fussier rules requiring Quebec government officials to do more of their dealings with others, including immigrants, in French – but let’s face it, in 2021, an individual’s adoption of a language isn’t heavily influenced by letters from the ministère.

One of the most prominent measures will cap attendance at English-language CEGEPs, the pre-university and vocational colleges, to 17.5 per cent of students.

It’s worth noting that doesn’t change anything for Quebec’s anglo community, per se. It’s a cap on the increasing number of kids who went to French grade schools and already speak French – the children of immigrants and in many cases, francophones – who are signing up for English CEGEPs in Montreal. The PQ didn’t want any of those non-anglos to go to English CEGEPs. Either way, it’s not a push to get more people to function in French, so much as slow the pull of English.

What Mr. Legault’s bill does have is declarations, symbols from the stroke of a pen.

But his government did pull back from a more intrusive approach favoured by some in his party, and outside it.

Justin Trudeau’s advisers expected it to include some more restrictive and controversial measures – things that grab headlines and might force them into a fight on language with a popular premier in an election year. Instead, they got smaller stuff and the nation declaration.

That would have made Pierre Trudeau jump, but Justin Trudeau’s Liberals think they can keep it low-key. After all, when Stephen Harper was in power, Parliament passed a motion declaring Quebeckers formed a nation. Other party leaders aren’t raising a stink now, so the Liberals figure they can avoid a fight.

And Mr. Legault, who wants to respond to Quebeckers’ desire to protect their language, will boast that without even a squabble, he had Quebeckers recognized in the Constitution as a nation, with French as their official tongue.

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