Bill 96 will relaunch the language war in Quebec

OTTAWA — The language wars — and identity politics — in Quebec are heating up again.

Only now can neither the federal Liberal government nor federal Conservative leadership hopefuls – who may not wish to annoy French-speaking voters in Quebec – afford to look the other way.

That’s because the law, originally proposed as Bill 96 last year, is now a reality. And the province’s English-speaking minority community fears it threatens their access to health care, education, justice and other government services in English.

As a result, federal political leaders are forced to take the measure of the law and take a stand.

Here’s what you need to know about the Bill 96 debate.

Why now?

The Legislative Assembly of Quebec adopted the final version of its latest law on the protection of the French language on Tuesday. So far, federal politicians have tapped around this, deferring to the province and popular Premier Francois Legault on a sensitive political issue, even though the federal government has a clear constitutional responsibility to protect ” official language minorities” of Canada – which includes English speakers in Quebec.

What is the law?

Entitled “An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Quebec”, it is complex legislation on services in English and the increased requirements for the use of French in government services and private workplaces. Different parts will come into force over the next three years. But the intention is clear: to increase the use of French in all aspects of Quebec society.

What are the main criticisms of the law?

There is a lot of. In short, that by making the use of French mandatory in a greater number of workplaces and government services, it goes too far, that it violates fundamental freedoms and rights, such as the right to freedom of expression, the right to procedural fairness and due process, the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, and to guarantee equality rights against discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin.

Federal Justice Minister David Lametti expressed concern about its impact on “the constitutional rights of minorities in Quebec,” including the right of access to justice in both official languages ​​guaranteed by s. 133 of the Constitution, particularly in light of the obligation imposed by law 96 on litigants to translate court documents into French; its potential impact on the number of English-speaking judges appointed; and potential impacts on the rights of Indigenous peoples, guaranteed by Sec. 35 of the Constitution.

He worried about access to health care, the potential impact on immigration, as well as the power of provincial language officials to conduct warrantless searches and seizures of private businesses that may violate human rights. of the Charter.

In addition, the law expressly limits the ability of opponents to sue the Quebec government to challenge its worst sins. He invokes a constitutional override, called the “notwithstanding” clause, to shield him from judicial review for up to five years — a constitutional loophole that previous Quebec governments have used to proof language laws. disputes.

Who opposes it?

The law was passed 78 to 29 by the ruling centre-right nationalist party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, with the support of another party, Québec solidaire. The Parti Québécois voted against it, saying it didn’t go far enough.

Only the provincial Liberal Party voted against, saying it was an excess of power. Many members of the English-speaking community in Greater Montreal, Aboriginal groups, including the Mohawks of Kahnawake and the Innu of northern Quebec, and other linguistic minorities within immigrant communities in Quebec, sometimes referred to as allophones (people whose language first is neither English nor French), are opposed.

The Quebec Community Groups Network, a nonprofit umbrella group, has mobilized against this, holding two rallies this month and pledging to mount legal challenges.

What can federal politicians do?

The federal government could always test the validity of a provincial law on a reference to the Supreme Court of Canada, but this is not ideal because there would be no real facts to examine. It could intervene in the early stages of the appeal to support groups that undertake to challenge the language law in court, once they do. There is no need to wait for the case to go to the Supreme Court of Canada. There are advantages to presenting federal arguments and seeing them tested by Quebec courts. Or it could come in once a test case gets to the Supreme Court level.

Until now, none of the major federal parties had said that they would expressly challenge Quebec.

For more than a year, there has been a lively debate within the Liberal and Conservative caucuses on Bill 96 as well as Bill 21, the law on secularism passed in June 2019. Popular in Quebec, this The latter law prohibits officials in certain public sectors, such as education or policing, from wearing outward symbols of religious belief such as the hijab, yarmulke, cross or turban. She also invokes the “notwithstanding clause” to avoid any judicial review.

Internal Liberal malaise grew and on Wednesday, Anthony Housefather, a Liberal MP, lawyer and former mayor of Côte Saint-Luc, along with three other Liberal MPs published an article in the Montreal Gazette and Le Devoir on the tongue acts, claiming it fails to strike the right balance.

So far, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has declined to directly condemn the two bills, though he has repeatedly raised concerns about their impact. On Bill 21, Trudeau said it was up to Quebecers to challenge it, without ruling out possible future intervention at the Supreme Court of Canada.

Regarding Bill 96, Trudeau had long said that his government would wait to see the final version.

This week, Trudeau and his government went further in their criticism of the two laws.

In Saskatoon, Trudeau said his government “will be part” of a legal challenge to Bill 21 once it reaches the highest court in the land, as he said “almost certainly”.

“We will be there to defend the fundamental rights of all Canadians who have been suspended by this law.

His justice minister said Ottawa will “watch carefully” to see how Bill 96 is being put into practice, and may step in to challenge it in the Supreme Court of Canada as well.

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