Minorities risk being excluded by Quebec's proposed language law, Anglo-rights group says

Wording by the Quebec government in its proposed amendment of the Canadian constitution could exclude many from the very definition of being a Quebecer, according to an analysis of Quebec's proposed new language law by the Quebec Community Groups Network.

Bill 96 is CAQ government's 2nd use of the notwithstanding clause to override rights charters

Marlene Jennings, the president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, says Quebec's proposed new language law goes too far in its use of the notwithstanding clause. (Sean Henry/CBC)

Wording by the Quebec government in its proposed amendment of the Canadian Constitution could exclude many from being defined as a Quebecer, according to an analysis of Bill 96 by the Quebec Community Groups Network.

The QCGN is an umbrella group made up of English-speaking community organizations. It says the proposed new language law would effectively make the province a "charter-free zone" because of its sweeping use of the notwithstanding clause. 

Bill 96 was tabled by the Coalition Avenir Québec government May 13. Premier François Legault said he expects his majority government to pass it during the next session at the National Assembly. 

QCGN president Marlene Jennings expressed concerns about the bill's use of the notwithstanding clause when it was tabled.

"It establishes the hierarchy of rights, creating collective French community rights that would have precedence over individual rights," Jennings said.

The group says it has now done an exhaustive analysis and is alarmed by what it uncovered. 

"It literally puts the legal order on its head. It creates a rights-free zone," Jennings said during an online news conference Thursday morning. 

One part of the bill the group takes issue with is the wording of its proposed amendment to the Canadian Constitution that would add clauses defining Quebec as a nation with its official and common language being French.

The amendment would have the constitution say that "Quebecers form a nation," that French is the only official language of Quebec," and that French is the "common language of the Quebec nation." 

Jennings worries this could be interpreted to mean that people, including residents of Quebec, who do not speak French or even a certain level of French would be excluded from being Quebecers. 

She said she is also concerned by the pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to protect the bill from legal challenges.

The notwithstanding clause, officially called Section 33, allows provincial or federal authorities to override certain sections of the charter for a period of five years. The QCGN's analysis found the bill uses the clause to override both the federal and provincial human rights charters. 

This is the second time Legault's government has used the notwithstanding clause. The CAQ government used it to shield its law barring some civil servants from wearing religious symbols, known as Bill 21, from legal challenges.

"When we say the most wide-sweeping use of the notwithstanding clause we're talking not just about Quebec, we're talking about any provincial or territorial or federal jurisdiction in Canada," Jennings said. 

Jennings is also worried the government will use an anglophone's right to an English education as a prerequisite for receiving services in English from now on, which she says the bill allows it to do.

QCGN asking David Lametti to intervene

The QCGN has written to Federal Justice Minister David Lametti, asking him to immediately refer Bill 96 to the Supreme Court to rule on Quebec's use of the notwithstanding clause and its amendment to the Canadian constitution.

Legault defended the bill Thursday, saying all of Quebec's political parties support it and that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the federal government would support Quebec's will to amend the constitution. 

"I think there's a kind of consensus in Quebec," Legault said, noting the Parti Québécois has said it doesn't go far enough. 

"We think that it's a balanced bill, but we will be open in the next few months to consult the population."

"We used the notwithstanding clause to make sure that there's one common language in Quebec, but the rights of the anglophone community for education and health-care services will still be respected," Legault added. 

Mohawk Council of Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon expressed his dismay in a video posted to Facebook that Quebec's new language bill made no mention of First Nations languages. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The QCGN isn't alone in voicing concerns about Bill 96. 

Last week, Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon said in a video published on Facebook that he understood Quebec's goal of asserting its identity in North America, but that the bill fails to acknowledge and protect First Nations languages.

With files from Kate McKenna