Joyal: At stake in Bill 101 decision is the very concept of Canada

Along with other commentary in this vein (Caddell: Bill 101 applying federally? Time for some constitutional common sense):

In recent months there has been a campaign in Quebec, orchestrated by independentist parties and nationalist movements, and now joined by a bi-partisan group of former Quebec premiers, to induce the Canadian government to subject federally chartered agencies and businesses to Bill 101. These entities account for barely four per cent of the labour force, a minimal proportion. The campaign’s goal is to counter what is held to be a “decline of French” in Montreal that is allegedly raging in downtown businesses.

What is at stake in the situation currently facing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the very concept of Canada and the principles upon which it is based.

The federal government’s response seems hesitant. Yet the principles of linguistic equality are clear, and section 16 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is eloquent. Seen through that lens, the fundamental nature of Canada serves francophones most of all.

The subtext of this campaign is pernicious: It implies that federally chartered enterprises contribute to the anglicization of Quebec. It overlooks the fact that some of these companies are also subject to the Official Languages Act, which includes precise measures for the provision of services in French and the right of employees to work in the language of their choice (in Quebec, for the majority, French), and that in addition there is a Commissioner of Official Languages to ensure that the law is obeyed.

Who could argue that Radio-Canada and its TV and radio networks could be a cause of the decline of French? That is ludicrous! The French language spoken on its airwaves has always been a model of quality in French Canada; the same is true of the NFB. French is also upheld in other enterprises with a federal charter, such as COGECO, or on 98.5 FM!

The noisy campaign propagated by a popular tabloid, brandishing the threat of an apprehended decline, creates a false perception and seems to be intimidating the defenders of basic principles.

Letting the idea spread that we should reduce the rights of the minority in Quebec could have fateful consequences for francophone minorities in other provinces. Does the defence of modern Canada not deserve better than a dishonourable capitulation? The country has never progressed when it has abandoned a minority. What signal would we be sending for the future of Canada? This retreat would be a very bad omen.

For many years now, it has been the government of Canada that has most efficiently supported the cultural dynamism of Quebec, at all levels.

If we want to reinforce French, we must focus on innovative policies that address the contemporary situation of French, which is controlled by, among other things, the digital platforms that young people prefer.

For example: Adopt strong measures so that French-language works are properly visible on Big Tech, and not simply determined by algorithms that steer and limit users’ choices.

For example: Ensure that the Commissioner of Official Languages’ powers are efficiently reinforced concerning the adoption of French as a language of work and of service. In other words, give the watchdog better tools, rather than abandon the field to provincial officialdom. The interests of the whole country would be far better served.

What I suggest is not surrender to a narrow vision of linguistic and cultural reality that in practice would separate Quebec from the fundamental principles of Canada, but rather a renewed commitment to meet the societal challenges of today’s world with all the tools of public policy at the Canadian government’s disposal.

I think it is timely to voice these concerns: it seems to me that the current discomfort and silence are becoming deafening.Serge Joyal is a retired senator and former member of the House of Commons and federal cabinet minister. In 1980-81, he served as co-chair of the Special Joint Committee on the Constitution of Canada. This oped is adapted from a letter that he has sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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