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Who will speak for Canada?

That is a question you have probably heard before. Every few years, it gets asked in Canada.

It’s a fair question, to ask what sort of country we are. What kind of nation we aspire to be.

A country is more than some lines on a map. It is more than a piece of fabric with some design on it. It is more than that.

During a pandemic, as with everything else, it is difficult to get people to ponder the meaning of nationhood. With thousands dead, and many thousands more seriously ill, debates about constitutions – never popular at the best of times – are unwanted.

Canada‘s Prime Minister, and Québec’s Premier, are counting on that. They are counting on the fact that you are likely distracted and disinterested in Québec’s Bill 96.

But you should be. Running some 100 pages, Bill 96 claims to be an effort to further protect the French language in Quebec. In reality, it is a bill that will reduce Québec’s English-speaking minority to the status of serfs.

And it will gut Canada‘s constitution, and the notion that no person – and no province – is more important then the rest.

That is why Bill 96 must be stopped. It will constitutionalize the notion that Quebec is better than the other provinces – and that anyone who lives there, and does not speak French, is a lesser being.

Government officials breaking into your cell phone, to see if you are using English. Government officials taking control of computers at work, to assess whether enough French is being used.

Government officials refusing to give services to those who do not speak French –  and tearing up contracts if the grammar or syntax is wrong.

Justin Trudeau is fine with all of that. Francoise Legault, formerly a proud separatist, wants all of that. Should we then shrug, and let that happen? Should we – as some have said to me – help Quebec pack?

The last time Quebec made a serious bid for independence, I was a chief of staff in the government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien. It was 1995. It looked like we could lose the referendum on making Quebec a separate country.

We asked one of our deputy ministers what that would mean. As he cried, he told us that the separatists planned to seize every federal building in Quebec, arguing that their tax dollars had paid for them. They were going to immediately establish armed border crossings into Quebec.

They were going to take control of the St. Lawrence seaway, upon which our country‘s economy depends. And they were going to seek a ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada that the country of Canada no longer existed. They were likely to win, in what would be the high court’s final decision. Chaos would ensue.

Bill 96 puts us on the road that will almost certainly end with that. If we go along with it, the separatists will never be satisfied – and demand yet more. If we refuse, they will screech that they are humiliated and demand yet more.

That is the Pandora’s box that Legault and Trudeau have now opened. Already, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney – formerly a federalist – is applauding Quebec’s move, and promising to emulate it.

As TS Eliot wrote, and as no less than Justin Trudeau‘s father agreed, sometimes things do not end with a bang. Sometimes, they end with a whimper.

We cannot, we must not, let Canada as we know it end with a whimper.

We are more than squiggles on a map. We are more than a flag. We are more than what Trudeau and Legault and Kenny would reduce us to. Aren’t we?

We live in difficult times, yes. We face many other challenges, yes. We don’t need this, yes.

But when your country is at risk, it is fair to ask:

Who will speak for it?

Kinsella was special assistant to Jean Chretien.

Photo Credit: CBC News

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.



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Quebec premier François Legault’s government is proposing a unilateral amendment to the Constitution Act, 1867 to entrench the idea that “Quebeckers form a nation,” and that the official language of the province – and of the Quebec nation – is French. There is a lot of debate on whether the provincial legislature can in fact do so under the rules of our constitutional amending formulas – including apparent agreement from Department of Justice lawyers in spite of clear evidence to the contrary when it comes to changes to a province’s official languages – but I find myself a bit more interested in the “nation” part of the proposal, for a couple of different reasons.

One of those is that this is seems to be a culmination of the whole wrenching process of trying to enshrine Quebec as a “distinct society” as part of the Constitutional wrangling of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, which helped give rise to the Reform Party in the early 1990s. The fact that the current federal government seems to be shrugging this off seems to be curious given the history in this country, especially given the constitutional wrangling of the 1980s. (There is a whole added dimension about Justin Trudeau and his father’s battles against this particular notion, but this is not the column to delve into that).

Others will point to the motion that Stephen Harper moved in the House of Commons in 2006, which moved that the House recognize that “The Québécois form a nation within a united Canada,” hoping to both try and one-up the Bloc Québécois and divide the Liberals, which was largely uncontentious in the broader scheme (though his intergovernmental affairs minister, Michael Chong, resigned as a point of principle over it given that he was not consulted in the process). The counterpoint, however, is that this was essentially a symbolic, non-binding motion and not an addition to the constitution. As well, Harper refused to qualify just who “Québécois” described in the motion, nor did the ministers he sent out to the media to explain the motion give any indication of just who it included – Harper himself indicating that it was a personal decision as to who chose to self-identify. This makes for some uncomfortable notions around both the anglophone minority within Quebec, more recent immigrant populations, as well as the First Nations on whose land the province rests, great portions of which remain unceded. And then there is the whole notion about it sounds uncomfortably like ethnic nationalism.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a case for considering Quebec to be a nation – they have a distinct language, culture, legal tradition and history within what we think of as Canada today, which is a federation of different nations and national identities – it’s just that constitutionalizing it becomes tricky. But where I suspect it will get even trickier will be an impetus for copycat notions from other parts of the country – most especially Alberta.

“But Alberta doesn’t have a distinct language, culture, legal tradition, or history,” you might say, and you would be correct – and yet, if you recall the Buffalo Declaration, the ridiculous farce of a manifesto put out by a number of Western MPs to lay out the Alberta and Saskatchewan’s – but mostly Alberta’s – grievances, and one of those was the insistence that “Alberta is a culturally distinct region, but this has not been recognized.” The logic around it was fairly dubious – claiming that their history contained several “distinct cultural themes.”

“A struggle against a colonial government, a desire for individual freedom, a willingness and drive to achieve personal economic liberty; a deep connection and respect for our land; and an economy unique to other areas of Canada,” the document reads, and goes into some of the immigration patterns to the province (having paid lip service to the Indigenous populations in the region without quite acknowledging how they were displaced). But much of this self-congratulatory back-patting likes to paint themselves as a bastion of tolerance in pushing back against the “redneck” stereotype, and yet, having grown up there, I can tell you that much of this tolerance is surface-level.

Sure, if you make a lot of money – and much of “Alberta culture” seems to be very much centred on how much money you make, in places where keeping up with the Joneses is a competitive sport – you can move in more social circles in the province, but there is a lot of deep-seated intolerance, racism, white supremacy, and homophobic bigotry. There are pervasive attitudes around First Nations as somehow being interlopers rather than the actual owners of the land. And then there is the religiosity that infects a lot of the politics and makes the “tolerance” harder to believe. Hell, in the mid-90s, my new-agey mother was accused of witchcraft by our rural neighbours, who began targeting us with threats up to and including killing our dog to send a message.  You’ll forgive me if these protestations of tolerance ring hollow.

Nevertheless, if Quebec goes ahead and attempts to enshrine its “nation” status unilaterally, you can bet there will be calls to open up the constitution to address issues like equalization – which have already started in Alberta – but I’m certain that we’ll start to see more calls for Alberta to demand some kind of recognition for its special cultural status, if not from the Buffalo Declaration crew, then by other opportunists who will try to use it to leverage some other kinds of concessions from the federal government. No doubt Quebec’s attempt to make these changes will be headed to the courts – likely not at the behest of any federal party as each are too craven to stand up to Legault and his apparently popularity, each of them hoping to get his magic glow upon them in the next election – and it may yet be struck down. But before that happens, I wouldn’t be surprised if proposals to unilaterally amend either the Constitution Act, 1867 or the Alberta Act, 1905 start being floated, creating even more problems for the rest of Confederation in the meantime.

Photo Credit: CBC News

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.



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The government official isn’t in uniform, but his authority can’t be questioned. He extends a hand.

As your boss stands at the door to your office, looking away, you slowly hand over your cell phone to the grim-faced government official.

The official repeats the words of the legislation that brought him to your office. He has the power to take your cell phone, he repeats.

“Verify, examine, process, copy or print out data,” he says, quoting directly from the statute. He turns to your boss, and asks if there are any other computers that haven’t been accessed yet. Your boss nods, slowly, and he and the government official leave.

When the government official arrived at your workplace, word spread fast. Someone had called a snitch line. The wording on the door to the office was unacceptable, apparently, and someone had complained.

So the unsmiling plain-clothes officials showed up. That was all the pretext they needed.

Along with going through documents and data on computers in the office, the officials had taken some cell phones from those they suspected were not obeying the rules. Like you.

The night before, you had heard from the mother of that nice immigrant family who moved in down the street. Her son had registered for some courses at the college your kids had gone to, but his registration was rejected. By the same government officials.

“They’re giving us six months to do what they want us to do,” said the mother, upset. “And if we don’t do it, we will be cut off.”

The rumours had been flying at work and at home for weeks. Everything was going to be affected: schools, businesses, courts, municipal governments. Businesses that were headquartered somewhere else: those had been caught by the powerful new law, too.

Because your boss has more than 25 employees working for him, he was going to have to set up a “special committee” at work. The committee would have to ensure that everyone is obeying the law, he said.

Contracts all had to adhere to the new rules. Same with any communications with government. Those had to be acceptable, too, or the government would simply stop responding.

Businesses with fewer employees were also hit, you had heard. If they didn’t satisfy the dour officials, they were going to have “special services” imposed on them by the government.

Permits would be revoked if someone breaks the rules. Even retroactively.

Contracts, real estate purchases, all of that: all would need to carefully reflect the government’s wishes. If they didn’t, they would be torn up, and new conditions imposed. Big fines for wrongdoers.

No exceptions.

A new government agency had been created to enforce the changes, and given vast powers. Including police-like powers, to enter any place and demand answers. And take peoples’ property.

As the nameless government official had done with your cell phone. The phone containing pictures of your kids, and love texts to your wife, and innocuous emails to and from your office colleagues.

He didn’t really care what you were saying, the official said.

He cared how you were saying it.

***

The above is a story, of sorts. It hasn’t happened just yet. But it will.

It’s coming.

The story is about the Canadian province of Quebec, and the changes that are coming in the Quebec government’s recently-tabled Bill 96. The Bill will change the Constitution of Canada, and render Quebec “a nation.” The Bill will impose the changes described above to “protect” the French language, too.

And Justin Trudeau has approved it.  And none of the federal Opposition parties oppose it.

Bill 96 is more damaging, more far-reaching, than the Meech Lake or Charlottetown accords.  It will actually ruin lives in Quebec – and radically change Canada in the process.

Photo Credit: CBC News

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.



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It’s been percolating for quite some time, despite the pandemic. Language has always been a political football in Quebec and issues have been flaring up over the past few months. François Legault’s CAQ government, not being interested in seeing a revival of the PQ, decided to go ahead with the first major reform in 25 years of Quebec’s language laws and strengthen the Charter of the French language, as set by the infamous Bill 101.

In nationalist circles, the perception has been that over time, the Charter had been weakened by courts’ decisions and by tweaks made by successive Quebec governments. To dissuade court challenges, Bill 96 is declaring from the get go that the notwithstanding clause will be invoked. For which parts of the Bill, you may ask? For all of it, stated Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who tabled Bill 96 on May 13th.

Just like with Bill 21 on religious symbols, the CAQ government is signalling that their new legislative proposal is going against the Canadian Charter of Rights. They know it and they do not want to waste time with numerous legal challenges. It won’t dissuade everyone, mind you, as we have seen with Bill 21.

Premier Legault labelled the Bill as solid, necessary and reasonable. Without going through its 24 different measures, Bill 96 aims to regulate the use of French in small businesses with more than 25 employees, restrict access to English-speaking CEGEPs, streamline French learning for immigrants and guarantee services in French to consumers.

Politically, it is a magnificent play. Cunning, even. At the National Assembly, the opposition is neutered. The Quebec Liberals, already mostly reduced to anglo ridings, have nothing to gain in franco ridings by posing themselves as strong defenders of the anglo minority. Instead, they will embrace what they now call a consensus for the preservation and sustainability of the French language. Quebec Solidaire is criticizing on the margins but is supportive in principle. The PQ is trying to raise a storm, but their lead argument of “it doesn’t go far enough”, is hardly enough to create an uproar outside of its ever shrinking voter base.

In Ottawa, the reaction has been prudent and measured. Justin Trudeau knows that if he were to engage in a language war, he would bid adieu to regaining a majority in the next election: the Bloc Québécois is salivating at that possibility. For the Liberals, just like their provincial cousins, wearing their traditional cape of defenders of the anglo minority has no electoral upside and limited downside in Quebec. Liberal strategists can’t imagine who else Anglo-Quebecers would vote for anyway. Especially since the Conservatives are onside with the Bill and the NDP is unlikely to base its Quebec strategy on becoming the champions of the anglo minority. An opening for a new Equality Party, perhaps? Or maybe the Maverick Party would consider stepping up?

These champions, if they are to rise up, may cut their teeth on the municipal front. If adopted, Bill 96 will strip the bilingual status of Quebec municipalities that currently have it if less than 50% of their population is of English maternal language. There is, however, a way to avoid that. Municipal councils can adopt a resolution to preserve their cities’ bilingual status within 120 days of the bill coming into force of law.

Depending on when the Bill is adopted, the timing could set the table for potentially explosive and divisive municipal elections in Quebec, scheduled for November. It is not hard to imagine PQ-friendly candidates running on a platform to make French the sole official language in their town. They are dying for a fight about French’s decline. This would no doubt trigger a mobilization of the anglo minority. Explosive, you say? We’ve been in that movie before.

Federally, the real political trap is about a symbolic move, as is often the case on these issues. A short passage of Bill 96 seeks to amend the Constitution Act of 1867 so that it specifies that Quebecers form a nation, that French is the only official language of Quebec and that it is also the common language of the Quebec nation.

The CAQ says it can proceed unilaterally, without asking permission from the House of Commons, the Senate and the other provinces, by using section 45 of the Constitution Act, which says that a legislature has exclusive jurisdiction to modify the constitution of its own province – which is Part V of the Constitution Act of 1867. It would be quite a coup!

After all these years and all these rounds of Constitutional negotiations, could it have been that simple all along? Doubtful. The recognition of French as the only official language of Quebec in the Canadian Constitution will no doubt lead to constitutional challenges. For instance, article 133 of the Constitution Act states clearly that English may be used in the Debates of the Quebec Legislature and in any of the Quebec Courts. Similarly, Quebec laws and court rulings must be published in English as well as in French.

How does one square that circle? The most likely route would be a modification under article 43, which would then require the approval of Ottawa. This is the kind of political process that led to the rise of the Reform Party.

Photo Credit: CBC News

 

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.