Bill 96, or the law respecting the official and common language in Quebec, French, which became official law on May 24, makes French the exclusive language in municipalities and workplaces with 25 or more employees. It thus eliminates the rights of linguistic minorities protected by the constitution, in particular the right to submit documents in English in small claims court, and also limits access to basic services such as health care in a language other than French. Currently, the wording of the law on official language is particularly vague and only mentions “certain exceptions”.
Shockingly, the provisions of the law even allow the “language police” to search phones, computers and documents of any business, without a court order, to ensure that communications are conducted in French. Who would have imagined that such a thing would happen in Canada?
The law of the official language is likely to lead to what Fareed Zakaria, a respected political commentator, calls an “illiberal democracy,” that is, a democracy that increasingly limits the liberties of the people it represents, ignoring the will of the minority. In contrast, Zakaria points out, the liberal state adequately protects individual and minority rights from abuse by the democratic majority.
As with the Secularization Act, which undermined the individual religious liberties of some Canadians and some Canadians living in Quebec, Legault’s government once again restricted minority rights. This time, it is targeting English-speaking Canadians living in the province by attacking their language rights, those enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These are the same constitutional provisions that also protect the language rights of French-speaking minorities outside Quebec.
To circumvent these linguistic rights of minorities protected by the Constitution, Legault’s government once again invoked ruling regardless of the Charter as a precaution. Otherwise, the official language law will not withstand judicial review. We know this because the Quebec Supreme Court, in its April 2021 ruling, declared that the Secular State Act (“Pell 21”) “violates the fundamental rights of religious minorities in the province, but such violations are permitted by clause notwithstanding the Constitution.”
In my recently published book, black and white. An intimate, multicultural perspective on the ‘white advantage’ and pathways to changeI call for the repeal of the provisions of the Charter, which have been abused by many governments in recent years (not just the Quebec government) and which contribute to the erosion of our liberal democracy. Removing the clause, however, would open the door to a successful challenge and repeal of many of the unconstitutional provisions in Bills 21 and 96.
I also argue that it is necessary and urgent to promote and integrate the French language more deeply into all aspects of Canadian society, from coast to coast. But it is unacceptable to do so by restricting the rights of citizens under the pretext of protecting the chosen culture, language and heritage. What kind of society would Quebec or all of Canada become if the will of the majority prevailed over the constitutional rights of the minority? We only need to look south of the border for an example of the danger this presents.
George Orwell wrote in his groundbreaking political satire: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others,” animals farm. Orwell highlights the danger of preaching equality on the one hand, while on the other making exceptions just to benefit some people. Modern global thinking about race, for example, has given rise to a renewed call to eliminate the “white supremacy” that is rooted in all of our systems and institutions.
That is why all Quebecers must continue to oppose the erosion of constitutional rights and freedoms, regardless of the race, religion, ethnic origin, cultural heritage or language of the people involved. This opposition must go hand in hand with a collective effort to formulate new ideas and new policies that strengthen, strengthen and integrate the French language into all aspects of society.
Supporting and promoting the French language and culture in Canada, in Quebec and beyond, is of paramount importance, not only because we are an officially bilingual country, but also because French is an integral part of Canadian identity.
With the law of official language, however, we stand before an abyss that risks plunging us further into division if we do not now stand up for the fundamental rights that unite us. Because we risk nothing less than losing our liberal democracy. Tragically, Law 96 illustrates the urgency of our current problem.
This text was translated by Aicha Flori.
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