Trudeau says Ottawa watching Quebec's proposed changes to language law 'carefully'

Published May 18, 2022 3:27 p.m. ET
Updated May 18, 2022 5:22 p.m. ET

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the federal government is watching “carefully” how Quebec’s Bill 96 is playing out provincially and respects the freedom of members of Parliament to protest it.

Heading into the House of Commons on Wednesday, Trudeau said in French that the Liberal Party will always protect minorities across the country, whether Francophone linguistic minorities outside of Quebec or Anglophone linguistic minorities within the province.

His comments come after members of the Bloc Quebecois argued it was “unacceptable” that a “large contingent” of Liberal MPs went to Montreal over the weekend to demonstrate against Bill 96.

"As a provocation in Quebec's jurisdiction, we can't imagine anything worse than that," said Bloc Québécois House Leader Alain Therrien on Monday. "Don't get involved in this.”

Mount Royal’s Anthony Housefather, Vaudreuil—Soulanges’s Peter Schiefke, Saint-Léonard—Saint-Michel’s Patricia Lattanzio, Vimy’s Annie Koutrakis, Saint-Laurent’s Emmanuella Lambropoulos, Lac-Saint-Louis’ Francis Scarpaleggia, Dorval—Lachine—LaSalle’s Anju Dhillon and Pierrefonds—Dollard’s Sameer Zuberi were all in attendance at Saturday’s event.

“I attended in support of my community and electors. We are legitimately concerned about a law that takes away historical rights of English speaking Quebecers and removes the bill from the scope of the Quebec Charter and which preemptively and in an omnibus way uses the notwithstanding clause under the federal charter,” reads a statement to from Housefather.

The proposed legislation seeks to affirm that the only official and common language of Quebec is French and to that end would make several amendments to the Charter of the French Language, or Bill 101. The central aim would be to ensure that French is used exclusively in workplaces and municipalities.

But many argue it infringes on the rights of Anglophones and Indigenous Peoples and will make accessing essential services difficult, including health care.

Quebec Premier François Legault sought to address what he called “disinformation” swirling around the bill on Tuesday.

"I want to reassure everybody speaking English, even if their fathers went to an English school or not... [providers] will not refuse to treat a patient in English if it's needed," he said.

"I want to be very clear, there is no change at all in the actual situation of services given to Anglophones and immigrants in English in our health-care system -- that's clear.”

Legal experts argue it’s not so simple and are skeptical of the bill’s overreach.

The dean of McGill’s law school, Robert Leckey wrote on Twitter that while there is a provision allowing the civil administration to use another language in addition to French where “health, public safety, or the principles of natural justice so require,” it doesn’t read as a blanket exemption.

“To me, it looks much more like a narrow, case-by-case exception, perhaps with a high threshold,” he said. “Read alongside the exceptions for public safety and natural justice, the exception for health may be interpreted narrowly – even limited to situations of life and death.”

Several Liberal ministers were also asked about Bill 96 on Wednesday and their colleagues’ decision to attend the Saturday protest.

“MPs have the right to represent whatever the points of view of their constituents there,” Canadian Heritage Minister and Quebec Lieutenant Pablo Rodriguez said in French.

He went on to add that there is a general consensus the French language is under threat across the country but it’s also reasonable to have questions about the proposed legislation.

Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne echoed a similar sentiment that there must be substantial debate on the issue.

“There are elements of this law which I think do not correspond to the will of many Quebecers and that will be up to the National Assembly to do this work,” he said in French.

With files from The Canadian Press and CTV News Montreal’s Selena Ross.

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