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By Gordon Lambie

Local Journalism Initiative

Asked about the issues highlighted last week by the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) regarding the province’s proposed language reform, Bill 96, Canada’s Minister of Justice, David Lametti, shared that he plans to continue to study the bill carefully but generally downplayed worries.

“We’ll continue to watch the situation, but we’re comfortable to let the process move forward,” Lametti said, explaining that although he does have concerns about the way the bill makes use of the notwithstanding clause, he also considers the proposed legislation to be in a very early stage at this point.

“It’s early days. The bill hasn’t even been tabled in the National Assembly,” he observed. “We’ll see where the final wording of it lands.”

Last Thursday QCGN presented their initial analysis of the bill, which was introduced by Simon Jolin-Barrette, the provincial Minister of Justice, in mid-May. Over the course of that presentation, QCGN President Marlene Jennings criticized the bill as groundwork that could be used to undermine minority language rights in Quebec. Among other issues, Jennings highlighted changes to the legal system and public service that would make communication in English, and therefore access to services in English, more of a challenge.

Lametti stated several times that the federal government intends to defend language rights and other rights that are protected in the Canadian constitution, but also established that the idea of Quebec as a distinct nation within Canada and of French being the common language of the province are not new in Ottawa.

“All of that is, I think, quite well accepted now,” he said also underlining the importance of taking steps to protect the French language both within Quebec and across the country. Lametti made a point of saying that no areas of federal jurisdiction will be ceded to the province, even though the bill seeks to extend the provisions of the Charter of the French Language to institutions like banks.

“We will work in a cooperative way, where possible, to make sure that they stay in their lane and we stay in ours,” he said, arguing that the provincial and federal governments have agency to make their own decisions provided that each stays within their own set jurisdiction.

Despite his general ‘wait and see’ attitude, the justice minister was not completely without criticisms of the bill.

“There is a real concern on our part with the preemptive use of the notwithstanding clause,” Lametti said, agreeing with the QCGN assessment that planning to employ the clause from the moment the bill is drafted undermines later debate and analysis of the document by both the National Assembly and the court system.

“It might very well even undermine the structure of the way the charter was written,” he said, referring to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “Section 33 (the notwithstanding clause) was meant to be an exceptional clause; to be used exceptionally, as a last resort.”

“We’re going to continue to study its use both in Quebec and other provinces,” Lametti added, pointing out that although Quebec has made headlines recently for making use of the clause in passing its secularism bill and now with Bill 96, other provinces have also used it to pass otherwise unconstitutional laws.

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