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French language supporters take part in a demonstration in Montreal on May 21, 2021.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

If Camille Laurin were alive today, the father of Quebec’s Bill 101 would no doubt be overjoyed to see that Ottawa has finally come around to his way of thinking on the protection of the French language in Canada.

Laurin’s vision of a coercive law that makes French the official language of Quebec, and the everyday language of life in that province, could soon be embedded in Canada’s Official Languages Act, thanks to reforms tabled this month by the Trudeau government.

First introduced last June during the very final days of the previous Parliament, when the Liberals knew an election was coming and the bill would die on the order paper, the reforms have returned with a vengeance.

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Unlike the previous version, the new one, Bill C-13, allows for the first time ever for the Commissioner of Official Languages to levy fines of up to $25,000 on Crown corporations and federally regulated transportation companies, such as Air Canada and Via Rail, that fail to provide services in both official languages.

Bill C-13 would also allow the commissioner to impose compliance agreements on federal institutions and Crown corporations that are subject to complaints – another first.

It also notably moves into a separate law, rather than making it a part of the Official Languages Act, the requirement that federally chartered businesses in Quebec that aren’t subject to Bill 101 either voluntarily submit to the province’s rules on workplace francization, or to identical rules under the wordy new “Use of French in Federally Regulated Private Businesses Act.”

Those include the right of employees to work and be supervised solely in French, and the obligation on companies that want employees to speak a second language to prove that the need for doing so “is objectively required.”

They also include the right of consumers to be served in French by federally chartered companies, and to file complaints with the Commissioner of Official Languages.

Other than that, Bill C-13 mirrors what was in the reform bill tabled last June.

This includes the recognition that “French is in a minority situation in Canada and North America due to the predominant use of English,” and that Ottawa “is committed to protecting and promoting the French language.”

It obliges the Heritage Department to promote French culture and language across Canada, and the country’s diplomatic service to do the same overseas.

It calls on the Immigration Department to recruit more French-language teachers to meet the demand for French immersion courses outside Quebec, and to increase immigration from French-speaking countries in general.

And, if adopted, it would require Supreme Court nominees to be bilingual – putting into law a practice the Trudeau government has been following since 2015, but which could curtail the right of future prime ministers to pick who they want to sit on the top court.

This is a far cry from the scope of the original Officials Languages Act adopted in 1969. That law guaranteed the right of Canadians to work in, and be served by, the federal civil service in the official language of their choice. It was updated in 1988 to reflect the obligation to protect minority language education rights in the 1982 Constitution.

Bill C-13 is different. It is far more concerned with promoting the French language in Canada, and protecting it in Quebec, than it is with ensuring that the federal bureaucracy operates in two languages, and that French and English have equal status.

It would put Ottawa in the odd position of actively encouraging bilingualism outside Quebec, while actively legislating against it inside the province.

Just this week, the Quebec government vowed to add a clause to Bill 96, a proposed law that uses the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to further restrict the use of English in Quebec, to make it clear that judges on the province’s courts can’t be obliged to know how to speak English – even if Quebec judges say bilingualism is necessary to ensure the fair administration of justice.

Will the Trudeau government weigh in on this thorny issue? It’s a pertinent question, given that its reform of the Official Languages Act suggests that it has decided that the only place Ottawa will henceforth promote bilingualism is everywhere but Quebec.

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