Revamp of the Official Languages Act raises concerns among legal experts and Quebec Anglos

Constitutional lawyer Julius Grey says the English-speaking community in Quebec is being deserted for 'purely political' reasons. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Constitutional lawyer Julius Grey says the English-speaking community in Quebec is being deserted for 'purely political' reasons. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)

The Trudeau government's attempt to modernize the Official Languages Act has raised eyebrows in legal circles, sparked pushback from language rights activists, and prompted four Liberal MPs to take a stand against a bill that was tabled by their own party.

But what is Bill C-13? And why has it faced significant resistance?

Here's a rundown of what's included in the proposed legislation and why it has many in Quebec's English-speaking community worried.

What's in the bill?

According to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Bill C-13 "seeks to protect linguistic minorities across the country and protect French in Quebec," but critics have voiced concerns that the legislation will serve to further erode the rights of English-language minority communities within Quebec.

The main point of contention is the reference within the legislation to Quebec's Charter of the French Language, which was modified last year with the province's adoption of the controversial Bill 96 (now Law 14).

That law makes pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause, the part of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that enables provincial governments to sidestep the Charter.

"What is important is that people realize that the reason behind the desertion of the English community in Quebec is purely political," said Montreal-based constitutional lawyer Julius Grey.

Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press
Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press

Bill C-13 is divided into three parts. The first part makes amendments to the Official Languages Act. The second part regulates the use of French in federally regulated private businesses, and the third part outlines the legal applications of the legislation.

While the bill includes a commitment to "enhancing the vitality of the English and French linguistic minority communities in Canada and supporting and assisting their development," there are concerns that a series of amendments led by the Bloc Québécois  and supported by other opposition parties will further erode the rights of English-speaking Quebecers by emphasizing that anglophones in Quebec have "different needs" than francophones outside Quebec.

According to Bloc MP Mario Beaulieu, the amendments are necessary.

"By putting anglophones in Quebec and francophone Acadian communities on the same footing, every time they are given a right, the French language in Quebec is weakened, since English in Quebec is strengthened," reasoned Beaulieu during a December meeting of the standing committee on official languages.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Why is this bill even necessary? 

In the 2019 throne speech, the Liberal government reaffirmed its commitment to reform the Official Languages Act. Although the act has been revised several times since its adoption in 1969, it was the first time a federal government declared a responsibility to protect and promote French, not only outside Quebec but also within Quebec.

This announcement came  on the heels of a 2016 Statistics Canada census revealing that about 20 per cent of Quebecers speak English at home at least some of the time. This represented an increase of about five percentage points from the previous census and contributed to concerns that French in Quebec is on the decline.

While that same census also showed that 94 per cent of Quebecers can communicate in French, a number virtually unchanged from the previous census of 2011, perceptions in Quebec that go as far back as the 1839 Durham report — which strongly suggested that francophones be assimilated — have led most people in the province to see English as a threat to the long-term survival of French.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press
Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Where does this leave English-speaking Quebecers? 

According to Eva Ludvik of the Quebec Community Groups Network, both the English- and French-speaking community associations and groups were in agreement with the modernization of the Official Languages Act and what Bill C-13 stood for.

"It's when requests and demands from the Quebec government started being incorporated into it through amendments and through the latest version of the bill [that] things started to deteriorate," she said.

Anthony Housefather, one of the four Liberal MPs publicly opposing the legislation, has continued to voice concerns about the implications of Bill C-13, despite a public thrashing in the Quebec media.

"Symbolically, it's inappropriate in the Official Languages Act to refer to provincial language legislation that is opposed by almost the entire minority-language community of the province and all of its major organizations," he said during an interview on Feb. 16 with CBC Montreal's Radio Noon host Shawn Apel.

"The federal Parliament would for the first time be saying, 'We're mentioning in a federal law, approvingly, a provincial law that used the notwithstanding clause,' and when we go challenge it in the courts ... you would actually have a substantial argument that English-language services in Quebec would have to be reduced."


Where do things go from here?

As parliamentarians continue to deliberate on the final form of the proposed law, one legal expert says issues with Bill C-13 have exposed a more fundamental issue — the excessive use of the notwithstanding clause.

If pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause becomes entrenched, there are concerns that it will become increasingly difficult for the Supreme Court of Canada to come to the defence of Canadians' Charter rights when they are jeopardized by elected officials.

Constitutional lawyer Frédéric Bérard currently has a case before the court to limit the use of the notwithstanding clause.

"I think that it's now way too easy to refer to that clause," explained Bérard. "My proposal to the court is to add an obligation for Ottawa, for Quebec, for Ontario, each and every time they want to invoke the notwithstanding clause … to make the evidence that they're pursuing a real and urgent objective."

Julius Grey says he has seen widespread depression among English speakers in Quebec, who do not feel their interests are taken into account.

"Everybody is repeating the old theory, which is incorrect, that they're the best treated minority," he said.

"They're not. It is important for the federal government to realize that they've got two linguistic minorities. There is the French minority, which needs services and investment in the rest of the country, and there is the English minority, which needs the same thing in Quebec."

WATCH | Group outlines challenges facing English-speaking Quebecers: