You’ve got to hand it to Quebec Premier François Legault.
Since winning power in 2018, he’s become a much savvier leader. He’s dialled down his divisive rhetoric from a few years back when he used to call for bans on the burkini or the expulsion of immigrants who failed a values test. He’s also morphed from a devoted separatist back when he was a Parti Québécois cabinet minister to a pragmatic nationalist, more intent on increasing Quebec’s economic prowess and harnessing the province’s Hydro power to become the green battery of North America than sovereignty itself.
But that doesn’t mean he’s changed his stripes.
Now that he’s in charge, Legault is pretty much doing all the things he threatened to do when he was a raging populist, he’s just presenting it in a much more statesmanlike manner. He’s curtailed the rights of religious minorities to ensure they can’t hold positions of power within the Quebec civil service with Bill 21. He’s reduced immigration quotas in a bid to “take fewer, but take better care of them.” Now, as he seeks to reinforce French, he’s not only trampling the rights of the English-speaking community but bolstering Quebec’s clout within Canada and reshaping the federation to his liking.
And hardly anyone is blinking an eye.
Bill 96 contains two provisions that should have alarm bells ringing from Tofino to Twillingate. The first is a clause to rewrite the constitution to recognize Quebecers as a nation whose only official language is French. The second is the pre-emptive shielding of the entire bill with the notwithstanding clause.
These are sweeping measures that would: create a hierarchy elevating the rights of the collective over those of individuals; give the National Assembly unfettered power to legislate as it sees fit; weaken the role of the courts in recognizing and remedying rights violations; and exempt broad swaths of life, from education to commerce, from the protections of both the Quebec and Canadian charters.
Yet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau caved in to the amendment request almost immediately to avoid a showdown. His father, who repatriated the Canadian constitution from Britain and added the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, must be rolling in his grave.
With a federal election on the horizon where Quebec will play a huge role in determining who clinches power as well as whether the next government is a majority or a minority, Legault will hold not only Trudeau to his word, but all the party leaders.
Talk about winning conditions. The national political balance is so tilted in Legault’s favour at the moment that he can basically waltz his way incrementally toward de facto sovereignty for Quebec without ever having to hold a referendum.
Bill 96 has been met with widespread approval by the francophone population at large, the business community, even opposition parties. If anything, language hawks in the Parti Québécois and the Société Saint-Jean Baptiste think it doesn’t go far enough in beefing up French.
Even anglophones found themselves initially lulled by reassurances from Legault and Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette that Bill 96 is respectful of English-speaking Quebecers’ rights.
“It’s nothing against the English Quebecers,” Legault said.
“It’s the status quo for the anglophone community,” Jolin-Barrette chimed in.
But that’s just not so. The Quebec Community Groups Network, an anglophone rights group, took a closer look at the fine print of Bill 96 and found all kinds of pitfalls that could erode access to English public services and limit the very definition of who qualifies for them. That’s problematic, but it’s nothing compared to turning anglophones, allophones and other minorities into second-class citizens, wiping out protections for fundamental rights and neutering the courts’ jurisdiction to intervene.
Legault has no doubt been emboldened by Bill 21, which is legislated discrimination against minorities who wear religious garb and want to work in the public service as teachers, police officers or prosecutors. By surrounding that abhorrent law with the forcefield of the notwithstanding clause, it survived a charter challenge despite a judge’s finding that it clearly infringes on rights.
The only narrow aspect of Bill 21 that escaped the blanket exemption was with regards to English schools, since the community has the constitutional protection to manage and control its educational institutions. These are the same rights anglophones are fighting to defend in the challenge of Bill 40, Legault’s law replacing school boards with anemic service centres.
No wonder anglophones have been so deeply involved with the fight against Bill 21. Not only does the community feel common cause with religious minorities, there’s a recognition that all our interests are deeply entwined and under attack in Legault’s Quebec, even if a social consensus exists around his secularism and language legislation.
As Legault increasingly seeks to stoke Quebecers’ pride in their language, history and culture and claims, minorities struggle to find their place in a nation that increasingly ignores their rights.
Allison Hanes: The devil is in the details of Bill 96 — and they are alarming
Allison Hanes: Bill 21 decision full of contradictions and doesn't make sense