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Anglophone leaders concerned about reference to Bill 96

By Jack Wilson

Local Journalism Initiative

Sherbrooke MP Élisabeth Brière and Compton-Stanstead MP Marie-Claude Bibeau both intend to vote in favour of language Bill C-13, the Record has confirmed. The confirmations come amidst concerns that the bill will erode rights for Quebec’s English-speaking community.

Bill C-13, federal legislation pending final approval in the House of Commons, will amend the Official Languages Act, which governs the use of French and English. The bill has garnered criticism for its references to Bill 96, sweeping provincial legislation that, among other things, restricts access to English-language services in Quebec. Bill 96 makes use of the notwithstanding clause, which allows the provincial government to opt out of its obligations under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Still, the notwithstanding clause can’t shield legislation from all constitutional requirements: rights including access to education and the justice system in both official languages precede the exemption. Alleged violations on those fronts have led to court challenges.

The reference to Bill 96 “has been our major issue with C-13,” said Eva Ludvig, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, which represents English-language groups throughout the province. “Bill 96 is protected under the notwithstanding clause and this would mean a semi-approval of pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause.”

Townshippers’ Association president Don Warnholtz also objected to the inclusion of Bill 96. “We would much rather not have 96 there,” he said. Still, Warnholtz said he agreed with much of Bill C-13, including its support for French-speaking communities outside of Quebec.

“We had to make some compromises,” Bibeau said of the reference to Bill 96. “Our choice would have been to take it away.” Other parties forced the minority Liberal government’s hand on that issue, she said.

Ludvig pointed to the legislation’s reach into federally regulated industries, like banking and telecommunications, as another cause for concern. “We feel that it might impact both the way federal public servants provide services to the English-speaking community in Quebec,” she said, as well as anglophones’ ability to work in those industries. Details on how exactly English speakers will be impacted are hazy, Ludvig said, but the bill risks impeding access to employment and service in English. “All of this makes us feel like the rights of the English-speaking community will be diminished in Quebec.”

While the bill aims to strengthen the status of French in the province, Bibeau said it wouldn’t be at the expense of the English community. “The idea is yes; you can still work in English but French-speaking people are supposed to be able to work in French in Quebec.”

Communication within businesses should be available in French, Bibeau said. “We have to recognize that French is the only official language in Quebec.” She clarified that the federal government would continue to operate in both official languages within the province.

Bibeau said she didn’t see C-13 worsening employment opportunities for English speakers, but that ideally, English speakers in Quebec should be bilingual.

“Will French speakers be able to work in Ontario? I believe the question is the same. Bilingualism is definitely the best scenario for both.”

Warnholtz shared Ludvig’s concern over decreased employment opportunities for English-speaking Quebecers. “Our community is already underrepresented in civil service at the provincial level.” With Bill C-13 threatening English speakers in federally-regulated sectors, “I don’t see how this is going to help us,” he said.

Negotiations between the Liberal minority government and opposition parties have been fraught, Bibeau said. “Is this bill perfect? No, none of them are.”

Still, Bibeau said her vote would be a yes. “I’m a cabinet member. If I was to vote against the government, I would no longer be a member of this team.”

She’s had her chance to give input, she said, adding that her personal views aren’t relevant. “It’s not a matter of my opinion. I’m just trying to tell you what the bill is and what the bill is not.”

Bibeau pointed to funding under the new Official Languages Action Plan as evidence of the federal government’s commitment to Quebec anglophones. “These are very concrete actions that our government is taking.”

Quebec French Language Minister Jean-François Roberge and federal Official Languages Minister Ginette Petitpas-Taylor recently came to an agreement over the use of French within Quebec’s federally regulated workplaces. The agreement will come into force alongside Bill C-13, but the deal’s contents are yet to be released.

Balancing the needs of French- and English-speaking communities is difficult, Warnholtz said, and the Official Languages Act is “due for an update.”

“If you take 96 out,” passing C-13 might even be a positive for English speakers, Warnholtz said. “We’re trying to find a place where we have relative language peace.”

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