Raj: NDP puts minority rights aside as it courts Quebec

Of note:

The federal NDP and the Green Party’s Elizabeth May voted to endorse the use of the notwithstanding clause and Quebec’s controversial Bill 96 Wednesday, by supporting Bloc Québécois legislation that strips the rights of non-francophones in the province.

The Bloc sought to amend several pieces of federal legislation to impose French as the dominant language in the province and tried to prevent Ottawa from contesting Quebec’s contentious language moves.

Its bill C-238, which was defeated Wednesday, would have changed the Citizenship Act so that Quebec residents can only become citizens if they have “adequate knowledge of French.” Everywhere else in Canada, residents must only demonstrate they speak either French or English. 

The bill also amended the Canada Labour Code, the Official Languages Act, and the Canadian Business Corporations Act by subjecting them to Quebec’s French language charter. 

Whatever the government of Quebec put into its charter would tie Ottawa’s hands.

This is concerning when you consider the nationalist Coalition Avenir Quebec — which is likely to be re-elected with a sweeping majority Monday — passed Bill 96 earlier this year. That legislation amended the French language charter to prevent many English speakers from speaking to each other in English at work (or in a language other than French); made it difficult for employers to require employees know any language other than French; and banned many people from accessing government services in English — even when they are available. It even gave the province the right to enter private businesses without a warrant to ensure emails, for example, are being sent in French and gave individuals the right to seek damages in court if their language rights are breached.

Quebec’s charter also imposes unnecessary hardship on newcomers, forcing them to learn French within six months of their arrival — after which the government only communicates with them in French. Expecting new arrivals to learn a language in six months is not only unrealistic but sets them up for failure.

And yet, this is what NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and his MPs voted for Wednesday. This from a party that prides itself on standing up for minority rights.

Quebec Premier François Legault has pre-emptively used the notwithstanding clause twice now to avoid legal challenges arising from obvious reaches of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, most recently with Bill 96 and previously with Bill 21, a law that prevents Quebecers employed in certain professions such as teachers, judges, and police officers from wearing religious symbols. Just last year, an elementary teacher in Chelsea, Que., was removed from her classroom for wearing a head scarf.

It’s hard to believe this is the kind of behaviour the NDP — or Elizabeth May, now a candidate for the leadership of the Green Party — wants to be associated with.

The decline of French in Quebec is a real concern. It is one shared by many allophones and anglophones in Quebec too. But subjecting federal laws to a provincial government, especially one that has questioned publicly why it should be subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is another thing altogether.

And while the NDP wants to have it both ways — by claiming it is standing up for the protection of the French language and respecting anglophone minority rights — its actions this week show it isn’t doing both. It also raises questions about whether the party is ready to contest for power if it is unwilling to assert Ottawa’s jurisdiction.

New Democrats note that they’ve always supported the idea that federal institutions operating in Quebec should be subject to the province’s language charter. The NDP’s only Quebec MP, Alexandre Boulerice, noted last spring that it made little sense for credit unions in the province to operate under different laws than federally-regulated banks. Bill 96, however, has changed that conversation.

Language is touchy in Quebec. The vast majority of Quebecers support Bill 96. Most of the province’s political parties do too. In fact, Quebec Liberals are polling in the single digits with francophones, likely due to their opposition to Bill 96 and Bill 21. 

For nearly two decades now, the NDP has embraced asymmetrical federalism with Quebec, including supporting the principle that 50 per cent plus one vote is enough to split the country. That position is credited for the party’s big win in 2011. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that yet again the NDP places chasing francophone support in Quebec above all else.

Montreal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, who helped convince his own caucus and lobbied opposition MPs to vote against the bill, said he was “very relieved” by its defeat. “Using the notwithstanding clause to deny people rights … is just very alarming,” he told the Star.

The silver lining in Wednesday’s vote came from the Liberals and notably Conservative MPs who unanimously stood opposed. Just 18 months ago, on a similar motion, all but one Conservative voted with the Bloc.

A new leader and a 2021 election that saw the Conservatives’ hopes for a big win in Quebec dashed seem to have contributed to an epiphany. That or Pierre Poilievre realized there are more votes to be had fighting the notwithstanding clause outside Quebec than endorsing it inside the province.

Source: NDP puts minority rights aside as it courts Quebec

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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