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Tom Mulcair: Legault has weaponized language


Stirring up resentment against others is not really new in politics. Today, we will probably call it “populism”. This leads to things like Trump’s Muslim ban. It can also incite people who espouse racist “replacement” theories to commit violent acts.

This is one of the vilest policies there is.

Historically, people of character have resisted populist bullies. It takes political courage and a deep understanding of the importance of defending the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The “populists” may be more popular, but letting them win could destroy the fabric of a nation.

When the Harper Conservatives were in power, they used the issue of Muslim face coverings at citizenship ceremonies as fodder for intolerance. They intentionally associated the word “barbaric” with certain practices, knowing that it would then apply to people. It was good policy, they said.

“A LOW POINT” IN OUR HISTORY

The Conservatives even offered a whistleblower line to denounce its neighbors. It was a low point in Canadian political history.

Stephen Harper was expelled in the ensuing election.

Today, there are two laws in Quebec that target religious and linguistic minorities. These laws should affect all Canadians. While he often talks about rights, Justin Trudeau has chosen to sit there, arms crossed, and do nothing to defend people whose freedoms are affected. He seems to be afraid of displeasing François Legault.

Language legislation is not new to Quebec. 45 years ago, the government of René Lévesque tabled Bill 101. It aimed to make French the normal language of work, business and government in Quebec. These principles received broad support.

More controversial, it directs all newcomers, even English-speaking Canadian children, to French schools. When the Canadian Charter of Rights came into effect, its “Canada Clause” collided with the “Quebec Clause” of Bill 101. The Attorney General of Canada was there, in the foreground, defending the rights of Canadians who move in Quebec to study in English. It was a slam dunk and the Canadian Charter was respected.

It was not a question of combating the principle of protecting and promoting French. It was about defending the rights protected by the Constitution and the mobility of Canadians within their own country. This is at the heart of the role of the Attorney General of Canada.

“PURE BREACH OF DUTY”

Today’s Attorney General David Lametti has done nothing to intervene in cases challenging Bill 21 and help minorities whose rights are being violated. It is a pure dereliction of duty.

Bill 101 also went far beyond simply requiring French on signs. It stipulated that all commercial signs had to be in French only, you could not add another version.

This too was rejected and the Supreme Court ruled that while Quebec could make French mandatory on all signs and even require French to be clearly predominant, it could not ban other languages. In this case too, fundamental freedoms were at stake and the Attorney General of Canada was there to defend the constitution.

After the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on sign language, Robert Bourassa’s Liberals broke a solemn promise and refused to honor the ruling. Instead, his government invoked the notwithstanding clause and introduced a law with arcane indoor/outdoor rules for bilingualism. This resulted in the resignation of several highly respected English-speaking members of his caucus. Guess what? In the elections that followed, having thus resisted the English, Bourassa obtained a new overwhelming majority.

Even the United Nations intervened in the law and it was determined that Bourassa’s law contravened international covenants applicable to Canada. Before going any further, the minister responsible for Bill 101, the exceptional Claude Ryan, was tasked with finding a solution that would keep Quebec’s “French face” without resorting to the derogatory clause.

I worked closely with Mr. Ryan and wrote the proposal that fit that circle. It has gone unchallenged ever since. Essentially, the idea was to keep the large billboards in French and allow bilingual billboards everywhere else. It was a solution that took into account the real concern for how Quebecers see themselves in the linguistic landscape. It worked.

AN OLD SPORT: ANGLO-BAASHING

In this context, François Legault, the former separatist decided to consolidate his base by returning to an age-old sport: Anglo-bashing.

Bill 96 is the most recent case of blatantly illegal legislation attacking minority rights in The beautiful province. In this case, it is the language rights of the minority that are affected.

In the wake of Bill 21, which openly discriminates against religious minorities in general (and Muslim women in particular), it caused an outcry. English-speaking Quebecers have chosen to stay in their province. It is the most bilingual group in Canada. They have sent their children to French schools and immersion classes and are simply tired of being the scapegoats for politically motivated language disputes.

It has to be done on purpose to irritate the English-speaking community of Quebec to the point that it is demonstrating in the streets by the thousands, as it did last weekend.

But it’s just that: Legault does it on purpose. Its language cops will have the right to search and seize computers on business premises without a warrant. Legault used the notwithstanding clause to remove the ability to challenge this fundamental violation of rights.

As the highly respected commentator Yves Boisvert pointed out in La Presse last Sunday, it is clear that several provisions of Bill 96 will be rejected by the courts. Legault becomes a victim and he wins.

With Bill 96, Legault claims to unilaterally modify the Canadian constitution even as it removes the equality of French and English before the courts. It is as clear as a bell in the 1982 Constitution that this would require a motion in the House of Commons and the Senate. Lametti knows this perfectly but will not defend the constitution here either.

The articles dealing with the language of justice are among the first to be the subject of legal challenges. In the past, the federal government has always defended the rule of law.

Trudeau and Lametti do not respect the constitution, their most basic obligation.

After a quarrel between the Minister of Justice de Legault and the Chief Justice of Quebec on the need to appoint bilingual judges in the province, a very firm court decision agreed with the Chief Justice. Legault jeopardizes the entire judicial system by redoubling its efforts and affirming that it is now the executive who will decide, and not the judges. It is appalling and goes against the most basic democratic rules governing the division of powers in Canadian society. Trudeau’s answer: crickets.

These are complex issues that require a subtle understanding of the law and history of language rights in Canada. They are fundamentally tied to the nature of the country and how we move forward.

So far, Legault has successfully argued that Bill 21’s overt discrimination against religious minorities is actually intended to ensure the government remains neutral on religion.

Telling a Muslim woman she can’t teach if she wears a hijab, a Jewish man he can’t become a crown attorney if he wears a yarmulke, or a Sikh he can’t become cop if he wears a turban, does not concern the separation of Church and State. It is discrimination pure and simple.

Legault also says that Bill 96 only aims to promote and protect the French language. An objective shared by the vast majority of Quebecers.

Remove the equality of French and English before the courts, erect legal barriers preventing English-speaking immigrants from accessing health and social services in English (which also goes against the Canada Health Act ) and empower language cops to search and seize business records without a warrant and without Charter protection, it is not about promoting the French language. It is purely and simply unconstitutional.

The language has been weaponized, in fact, for political purposes by François Legault who jealously guards the separatist vote he managed to wrest from the failing Parti Québécois in the last election.

Nothing new in an old workhorse like Legault using religion and language to divide, to better help his own political fortune.

What is new – and shameful – is to have a national government in Ottawa too scared to stand up for the rights of all Canadians.


Tom Mulcair was the leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada between 2012 and 2017.

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