WITH A CRITICAL EYE, I VOTED FOR BILL C-13
Stream of commentary has fed public confusion, writes Francis Scarpaleggia.
Since the adoption of Bill 96, frustration has grown in Quebec's anglophone community at the resurgence of language politics in the province after a long period of linguistic harmony. Unfortunately, this frustration has been projected onto Bill C-13, federal legislation to modernize the Official Languages Act. These two pieces of language legislation have been politically conflated, but Bill C-13 is not Bill 96.
As a legislator, I consider it a matter of principle to vote on what legislation says and not on perceptions that have built up around it.
There is every reason to take issue with Premier François Legault's heavy-handed approach to linguistic — and religious — rights as well as with his perfunctory use of the notwithstanding clause. The pushback against the Coalition Avenir Québec government has now rightly moved to the courts based on minority-language guarantees in the Constitution — most likely with financial support from the federal Court Challenges Program, whose funding our Liberal government doubled in its recent budget.
I approached Bill C-13 with a critical eye, perhaps more so than any other legislation I have encountered as a member of Parliament. I could have done without the mention of the Charter of the French Language that Bill C-13 adds to the preamble of the Official Languages Act. But this mention, included as part of a larger recognition of “the diversity of the provincial and territorial language regimes,” does not in my view constitute a threat to anglophone rights in our province.
As former Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache said when appearing on Bill C-13 at the House of Commons official languages committee: “I don't think the anglophone issue in Quebec has anything to do with the federal government, but rather the Quebec government.”
As for the idea that a reference to the Charter of the French Language in Bill C-13 amounts to an endorsement of the pre-emptive use of the Constitution's notwithstanding clause, jurisprudence (Attorney General v. Hanover) does not point to preambles having significant weight. Or, as former Supreme Court Justice Gérard La Forest has said, “It would seem odd if general words in a preamble were to be given more weight than specific provisions that deal with the matter.”
The federal government has been emphatic it does not approve of the pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause, whether against organized labour in Ontario or in Bills 96 and 21. Justice Minister David Lametti has been clear that the government will argue against pre-emptive use of the clause in court, specifically when Bill 21 reaches the Supreme Court. Parliament also made known its view on pre-emptive use when it recently voted down a Bloc motion on the subject. While the Conservatives voted with the Bloc to support the motion, both in tandem failed to carry the day.
The other mentions of the Charter of the French Language in Bill C-13 repeat wording from the bill's preamble or refer to federally regulated businesses having the choice to adhere to either a federal language framework or Quebec's language rules. I agree with the chair of the House of Commons official languages committee, as quoted by the former Quebec regional representative of the commissioner of official languages, David O. Johnston, that all references to the Charter of the French Language in Bill C-13 are “completely inoffensive from a judicial point of view.”
The stream of commentary around Bill C-13 has fed much public confusion. Some constituents have written to me fearful of losing the right to use English in the health-care system, which is a provincial jurisdiction. Others fear a weakening of English-language education rights, which are burned into our Charter of Rights and Freedoms and out of reach of the notwithstanding clause — sorry, Premier Legault. And still others are concerned about being able to speak English with bank tellers. The banks long ago adhered voluntarily to Bill 101 but would now have the opportunity, as federally regulated businesses, to opt for Bill C-13's more flexible — and bilingual — language framework.
Institutions are vital to a community's survival and growth.
That is why Bill C-13 also states in its preamble that the “Government of Canada recognizes the importance of supporting sectors that are essential to enhancing the vitality of English and French linguistic minority communities and protecting and promoting the presence of strong institutions serving those communities.” And why the bill adds Section 3.1 to the body of the OLA affirming that “language rights are to be given large, liberal and purposive interpretation.” And why our government has created the most ambitious Official Languages Action Plan in the history of Canada, with an additional $137 million for Quebec's anglophone community in the last federal budget alone. Further, Bill C-13 gives additional powers to the president of the Treasury Board and to the commissioner of official languages to ensure compliance with the OLA for both official minority-language communities.
As for concern that Bill C-13 would allow the Quebec government to ignore obligations to the anglophone community under federally funded programs delivered through negotiated agreements with the province, those agreements are governed by Section 20 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — also out of reach of the notwithstanding clause — and by Part IV of the OLA, which implements Section 20.
Finally, Bill C-13 requires Ottawa to estimate “the number of children whose parents have, under Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the right to have their children receive their instruction in the language of the English or French linguistic minority population of a province or territory, including the right to have them receive that instruction in minority language educational facilities.”
This information is vital to holding provincial governments, such as the Legault government, to account under Canada's minority-language constitutional guarantees.
As someone who has lived nearly the full history of Quebec's language politics, I have approached Bill C-13 with a clear and informed eye, specifically on the need to preserve Canada's hard-won and prized linguistic duality.