Facing re-election in 2022, Quebec Premier François Legault has made protecting of the French language a top priority. It is his “utmost duty,” he wrote last week in a Facebook post that included a letter he recently sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In the letter, he asked Mr. Trudeau to support an unusual clause in Bill 96, a proposed law to strengthen the province’s Charter of the French language, a.k.a. Bill 101.
Under Bill 96, Quebec wants to unilaterally insert two clauses into Canada’s Constitution: “Quebecers form a nation” and “French shall be the only official language of Quebec. It is also the common language of the Quebec nation.”
Does anyone else get the feeling that Mr. Legault just baited a political trap for Mr. Trudeau?
In Quebec, the bill has been met largely with approval. There’s a steady appetite for tougher language laws, and Bill 96 delivers. It tightens commercial sign rules; increases fines; sets quotas on how many non-English speakers can enroll in English-language colleges; and requires that French be the chief language of work in businesses with more than 25 employees, down from the current benchmark of 50.
To ensure businesses are complying, it forces them to give language inspectors access to work computers, or any other electronic device containing data, in order to “to verify, examine, process, copy or print out such data.”
It gives new immigrants a six-month grace period during which they can communicate with the government in English, and then requires them to continue in French only.
The bill also supersizes an already hefty language bureaucracy. It creates a new cabinet post, the minister of the French language, complete with a deputy minister and a department. It also establishes the role of French language commissioner, with extraordinary powers to investigate the use of French in the civil service.
It will be up to Quebec voters to decide whether this extension of the government’s reach into their lives is really in their best interests.
The plan to amend the Constitution is a different story, as it may affect the entire country. It will set a provincial precedent, and not a welcome one.
Each provincial legislature has the legal power to unilaterally amend some parts of the Constitution, namely those touching on certain narrow issues affecting only their province.
However, additional consent from Parliament is needed for any amendment “that relates to the use of the English or the French language within a province.” But the Legault government, which is very much trying to change the status of French and English in the province, via other parts of Bill 96, says its constitutional amendment does nothing of the sort. It merely adds two subclauses deep in the bowels of the Constitution Act of 1867 – a sort of “oh, and by the way” in the part of the law that covers provincial rules.
For Mr. Legault, adding the clauses is a symbolic political act that he says would “unite Quebeckers and increase their collective pride.” It would also secure his political fortunes for the foreseeable future.
As would having Ottawa or the rest of Canada try to block the move, or even question it. Mr. Legault wins if the amendment goes through; Mr. Legault wins if Ottawa opposes it. (On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau – passing the buck and dodging political danger – said he believes Quebec has the power to pass the amendments unilaterally. The courts may have other ideas.)
This is not a fight over symbols; a textual change like this could carry real substance. The Constitution is the fundamental law of the land; every word matters. There is no guarantee that Mr. Legault’s proposed clauses won’t some day be interpreted by courts as having an effect on the minority language rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And that hits the whole country.
Letting provincial governments unilaterally drop politically beneficial language into the Constitution whenever they feel like it is not what anyone had in mind when this amending formula was conceived. Could an Alberta government insert a clause saying that hydrocarbon extraction is an essential Albertan value? Could a future government declare net-zero a constitutional value?
Ottawa should not be so quick to give in to Mr. Legault’s gambit without challenge. Don’t worry; he won’t mind.
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