Among the “four foundations” of the Throne Speech, along with fighting the pandemic, providing support through the crisis and, of course, “building back better,” was a pledge to “stand up for who we are as Canadians.”
“We must never forget the values that make us who we are,” the speech crooned. Among those defining values – quick recap: We’re pro-immigrant, pro-gay, pro-reconciliation, but anti-systemic racism – it listed “embracing two official languages.”
Hello, one thought. That’s interesting, at a time when the government of Premier François Legault is vowing to extend the reach of Quebec’s Bill 101, which is famously about embracing one official language, to federally regulated employers in the province. It can’t, of course: “Federally regulated” means it would require changes to federal law.
But three of the four major federal parties are committed to passing such legislation, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole having lately committed his party to join the Bloc Québécois and the NDP in support. In a minority Parliament, that’s enough.
Still, surely the federal Liberals – the party of Pierre Trudeau, the party of bilingualism, champion of official language minorities wherever they may live – surely the Liberals would stand apart from this move to further suppress the rights of English-speakers in Quebec.
For make no mistake: that is what is involved. Most businesses in Quebec are governed either by the province’s Charter of the French Language (Bill 101′s formal name) or, if they are in the federal public sector, the federal Official Languages Act. The former restricts the language of work to French; the latter guarantees equal status to French and English. There remain, however, a few large employers – in the private sector, but federally regulated, in industries such as banking and transportation – that are covered by neither.
That these latter companies – about 1,760, according to a 2013 federal report, with about 135,000 employees – represent just 3.4 per cent of the work force in Quebec, and that most of them voluntarily subscribe to Bill 101′s dictates, suggests little would be accomplished by legislating them into conformity, beyond the delights of beating up on les anglais.
But for the federal government to do so is not just offensive, or unnecessary: It’s frankly bizarre. The federal role has always been to lean against the province’s linguistic excesses, not to reinforce them, and you would think a Liberal government would be the first to say so.
You would think that, but you would be wrong. To date, neither the Prime Minister nor the government he leads has taken any position one way or the other on the issue. But the Throne Speech appears to indicate where they are headed. It does not look good.
It begins soothingly enough. “The defence of the rights of francophones outside Quebec, and the defence of the rights of the anglophone minority within Quebec,” it declares, “is a priority for the government.”
But then it abruptly shifts gears. “The government of Canada must also recognize,” it instructs itself, “that the situation of French is unique,” there being just eight million francophones in Canada on a continent of 360 million anglophones and all that. “The government therefore has the responsibility to protect and promote French not only outside of Quebec, but also within Quebec.”
And then the kicker: “In this vein, 51 years after the passage of the Official Languages Act, the government is committed to strengthening this legislation” – how? Among other things, by “taking into consideration the unique reality of French.”
So the government will “strengthen” the law that now protects official language minorities, including the anglophone population of Quebec, in line with its newfound obligation to “protect and promote French … within Quebec.” That is to say, the language of the province’s majority.
Unless I miss my guess, this Orwellian passage sounds a lot like what the opposition parties have been demanding. A law that was intended to protect the minority from the majority is to be rewritten to protect the majority from the minority. The old idea – that official-language minorities had an equal right to federal protection, no matter what language they spoke or which province they lived in – is to be replaced by a new idea, that the rights of the anglophone minority in Quebec should, uniquely, take a backseat to the demands of the province’s francophone majority. And by a Liberal government – a Trudeau Liberal government, at that.
Alas, there are no seats to be had in the rest of the country defending the rights of minorities in Quebec: The big yawn over Bill 21 is proof of that. So why risk seats in Quebec for a principle, in a country that does not give a damn about principle?
Once, it was said, “rights are rights are rights.” Now it depends which group you belong to, and whether an election is coming.
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