Twenty-three municipalities in Quebec have joined together to ask the courts to suspend parts of Quebec's new language law, which they describe as abusive, while they contest it.
All of the cities and towns taking part in the challenge, including Côte Saint-Luc, Beaconsfield, Dorval, Kirkland, Montreal West and Westmount have bilingual status.
The Act respecting French, the official and common language of Quebec, amends several pieces of Quebec legislation, including the Charter of the French Language, making it more difficult to receive services in English.
The mayors say they are concerned about communications, illegal searches and seizures, government grants and the obligation, set out in the law, to discipline public employees who break the rules by working in English.
The challenge was filed in Superior Court.
Dale Roberts-Keats, mayor of Bonne-Espérance — a municipality on the Lower North Shore about 60 kilometres from the Labrador border with fewer than 700 residents — says the new law is unreasonable.
"It's absurd that for our municipality, where 99 per cent of the population has English as their language, we can't produce contracts with suppliers in our municipality in English," said Roberts-Keats at a news conference Wednesday.
"In our office, we're all English, so how are we going to make them understand a contract that's only in French? It is just ludicrous," she said.
"We have been fighting for the rights of our English population for decades, and it hasn't been easy at all and Bill 96 will only exacerbate that situation," said Roberts-Keats.
Alex Bottausci, mayor of Dollard-des-Ormeaux, a city of 48,200 residents in Montreal's West Island, took aim at Section 117 of the law, which he says allows the province to withhold subsidies to municipalities that don't follow Bill 96 rules.
"When you lose that grant money, you're talking about roads, infrastructure, construction," which also benefit francophone and allophone residents, Bottausci said.
He added that by linking subsidies for municipalities to French protection laws, Quebec is "creating problems where there are no problems."
'Abusive' powers for language inspectors: Côte Saint-Luc mayor
Côte Saint-Luc's mayor underlined that the law gives inspectors from the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) — the province's language watchdog — heightened powers that contradict the Act respecting Access to Documents held by public bodies and the protection of personal information.
Section 117 allows OQLF inspectors to conduct search and seizures without warrant and without notice.
Under the law, inspectors are empowered to look at the information on public workers' smartphones and other intellectual property, which is "more than is allowed to the police in a criminal investigation," Brownstein said.
"These inspections are unlimited, uncontrolled and therefore, unreasonable and abusive," he said.
Brownstein invited all bilingual cities to clearly indicate that their respective city halls would provide English services "without question" and urged the government to use "positive strategies" to protect French, such as improving access to education, rather than adopting laws that are "punitive and conflict with democracy."
"It's simple to create a piece of legislation on top, but then when it gets to the lower levels [of government], all of a sudden that's when there is a disconnect.
Legal challenge 'creative,' human rights lawyer says
Human rights lawyer Pearl Eliadis called the municipalities' legal approach "more creative" because it doesn't mainly rely on challenging the province's pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Constitution.
"They're looking at the way at which the drafting is done and the definition of who is an English-speaker and who isn't, the way in which English-speaking municipalities are going to function," she said.
"The big question here is whether or not a Superior Court, an appellate court or even the Supreme Court of Canada will build some safeguard around the use of the notwithstanding clause."
She said she believes the case will eventually reach the Supreme Court and potentially the United Nations' Human Rights Committee.
Eric Girard, the minister responsible for relations with English-speaking Quebecers, said that the municipalities are "entitled to use legal procedures if they wish."
"We've been all along saying that we have a responsibility to promote and protect French. This is what we're doing," he told CBC Montreal's Daybreak Friday.
LISTEN | Minister responsible for relations with English-speaking Quebecers reacts to Bill 96 concerns:
He also called concern over OQFL inspectors' ability to conduct searches without warrant and without notice "a dramatization" of their powers.
"What's happening is that we have a transition period, we have a new law and that people that need access to services will be served," he said.
"We certainly respect English-speaking people. They're part of Quebec. They're here."