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As with its sister legislation, Bill 21, the fundamental issue raised by Bill 96, Quebec’s hideous new language law, is not just the rights of minorities or the constitutional division of powers, but what kind of country we are.

Bill 21 raised a stir, not only in Quebec but across the country, because of what it plainly was: Not the innocuous assertion of the state’s religious neutrality its sponsors pretended, but an odious assault on religious minorities. Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and others are effectively barred from employment in much of the province’s public sector for the crime of wearing the symbols of their faith – as many are required to do by the tenets of that same faith.

Bill 96, on the other hand, has attracted comparatively little notice outside Quebec. What controversy it has aroused has been limited mainly to its brazen assertion of the power to unilaterally amend the constitution of Canada – to declare not only that “Quebecers form a nation,” but that the “common” and “only official language” of that nation is French.

It’s not on, obviously. While it is gratifying to have spelled out in black and white just whom the provincial government includes in its definition of “Quebecers,” the province has no power in law to impose such a clause on the rest of Canada, with its vast implications for everything from the division of powers to the ancient constitutional guarantees, as old as Canada, of equal status for English and French in its legislature and courts.

But Bill 96 has many other aims and instruments, the thrust of which is the same as Bill 21: to put minorities, in this case linguistic rather than religious, in their place – out of sight and certainly out of earshot of the French-speaking majority. If the precise terms of the legislation have eluded you thus far, it is enough to know that its animating ideal is that Bill 101, not known for its hesitancy to trample upon minority rights, did not go nearly far enough.

Where language debates until now turned largely on the public use of French, on commercial signs and whatnot, Bill 96 would intrude the state into the most intimate private conversations: written or oral, with members of the public or between co-workers, in virtually any workplace in the province.

Where until now the language of work provisions applied only to businesses with more than 50 employees, now businesses with as few as 25 would be forced to submit. Where Bill 101 concerned itself mostly with education – which children of which parents were eligible to attend school in which language – Bill 96 pokes its bureaucratic nose into the furthest corners of the health care system.

A doctor, for example, would not be permitted, even in the privacy of her own office, to speak with her patient in English – or Mandarin, or any other language – even if that were the preferred language of both parties. The only exceptions: members of the province’s “historic” English-speaking minority, as defined under existing law – that is, those who attended English school in Canada; and immigrants of less than six months’ residency.

And where before the inspectors of the Office de la langue française would have been constrained in their enforcement of these restrictions by such legal niceties as the requirement to obtain a search warrant, Bill 96 expressly relieves them of any such obligation. The documents on your computer, the text messages on your phone, your private medical records, all would have to be produced on demand.

But perhaps the OLF might not know where to look? The bill takes care of that, too, empowering private citizens to tell the authorities of any infraction of the language laws they suspect might have occurred or be about to – to snitch, in other words – without fear of exposure. Speak the wrong language at work, even in private, and risk being informed on by a co-worker. Fun!

And if you were in any doubt of what a monstrous assault on individual and minority rights this adds up to, you have only to know that the whole ball of wax, every line of it, is exempt from either the Canadian Charter of Rights or Quebec’s own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, thanks to its invocation of the notwithstanding clause.

There’s more, of course. The bill purports to apply to federally regulated workplaces, which is plainly unlawful. It caps enrolment in the province’s English-language junior colleges, or CEGEPs, a measure that seems mostly aimed at preventing francophones from enrolling in them. It threatens municipalities historically defined as bilingual, and therefore entitled to provide services in both languages, with the loss of that status unless they specifically vote to retain it. And much else besides.

It is difficult to see any purpose in this but intimidation and harassment. It is one thing to mandate that French-speakers have the right to work or receive service in their preferred language, quite another to prohibit the same to speakers of other languages – or, as in the case of CEGEPs, to francophones themselves. Warrantless searches and snitch lines ought to be a red flag: The more repressive the means required to enforce a law, the more likely it is that the law itself is misconceived.

Whether or not these and other of the bill’s sins might be justified in the usual way – by appeal to the alleged threat to French in Quebec – the simple fact is that French is not threatened in Quebec. True, the share of the population whose mother tongue is French has declined, slightly: from 81 per cent in 1996 to 79 per cent in 2016. But that is a statement about where people are from, not what language they use. The share of the population that can speak French, at 95 per cent, is as high as ever – indeed, nearly 10 percentage points higher than it was 50 years ago.

And yet, in the face of this egregious discrimination, Quebec’s linguistic minorities have been cut adrift. The courts can’t save them: the notwithstanding clause has seen to that. And no one else wants to – certainly not the province’s political parties, who compete for the title of most fervent anglo-basher. But neither, it seems, does anyone else.

Once, the rest of Canada might have been roused to their defence. But prolonged exposure to such outrages has anesthetized us. Political leaders, for their part, see no percentage in it: There are many seats to be lost in Quebec by taking issue with its language laws, and none to be gained. It was hard enough to get federal leaders to take on Bill 21, which had nothing to do with language. But Bill 96? Dream on.

Which brings us back to the question posed at the top. It is the same question raised by Bill 21. What kind of country are we? Are we a country that believes in and lives by the principles we say we do: that a Canadian is a Canadian, that rights are rights, that everyone is entitled to equal treatment under the law, and that no one is above it? Or are these all just meaningless slogans? Are we a genuine political community, with moral obligations to one another? Or are we just a place on a map?

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