Why (almost) nobody in Ottawa wants to talk about Quebec's new language bill

In another time, a federal Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau might be expected to raise concerns about a law that would amend the Constitution unilaterally to recognize Quebecers as a nation and declare French as that nation's common language. But there's an election coming.

With the prospect of an early election looming, few party leaders are willing to cross Premier Legault

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives a thumbs up as he leaves a news conference accompanied by Quebec Premier Francois Legault in Montreal, on Monday, March 15, 2021. (Paul Chiasson / Canadian Press)

Former Progressive Conservative leader Kim Campbell once said an election is no time to discuss serious issues.

While she later claimed her words had been taken out of context, there's some truth to the idea that a short election period doesn't allow enough time to properly explore complex, divisive issues.

It also helps explain why Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet is the only party leader in Ottawa who's determined to make Quebec's proposed language law — Bill 96 — an issue in advance of a possible federal election this fall.

All the other party leaders are doing their best to deprive Bill 96 of oxygen — to escape another divisive debate over Quebec's place in Canada and to avoid a public showdown with the province's popular premier, François Legault.

"I think that there is clear understanding that messing with François Legault politically is something that can be quite costly," said Daniel Béland, a McGill University political scientist and director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, in an interview airing Saturday on CBC's The House.

"So I see this really as part of, you know, anticipation of the forthcoming federal election more than as really something that is grounded in deep constitutional thinking."

In another time, a federal Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau might be expected to raise concerns about a law that would amend the Constitution unilaterally to recognize Quebecers as a nation and declare French as that nation's common language — a law that employs the notwithstanding clause to head off a constitutional challenge before one has even been launched.

The political climate has changed

Just four years ago, the prime minister dismissed a relatively benign attempt by then-Quebec premier Philippe Couillard to begin cross-country talks on his government's "Policy on Quebec Affirmation and Canadian Relations." Couillard, a federalist, sought to explore conditions that could lead to Quebec signing the Constitution.

"We are not opening the Constitution," Trudeau curtly told reporters at the time.

But these are different times. Couillard has been replaced by the nationalist Legault. The Bloc is once again a recognized party in Ottawa and looking to add to the 32 seats it won in 2019. And there is evidence to suggest the number of Canadians whose first language is French is declining.

Trudeau's government has sought to bolster the use of French. Earlier this year, it released a white paper on the Official Languages Act that proposes increasing the availability of French immersion courses across Canada and enforcing the use of French in federally-regulated workplaces within Quebec and in regions with a strong francophone presence outside of Quebec.

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Bill 96

Trudeau is asked about Quebec's move to rewrite the Constitution

3 years ago
Duration 1:25
Featured VideoPrime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters during the regular Tuesday pandemic briefing.

"For a long time the federal government has recognized that we have two official languages, but that Quebec has a special role to play in protecting French in Quebec," the prime minister said this week when asked again about his position on Bill 96. "However, we also intend to ensure protection of minority rights."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said much the same on Wednesday, arguing Legault's government has the power to change the Constitution in an area that is exclusive to Quebec.

"We, as a party, consistently defend the French language and we think it is important to do so," he told reporters. "With respect to the recent demand of Quebec, we absolutely support the recognition of the French language and Quebec as a nation."

Even Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has been muted in his response. He released a statement saying his party will always respect the jurisdiction of provinces — including their power to unilaterally modify sections of the Constitution that pertain to them.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole — like other federal party leaders — seems to be steering clear of a confrontation with the Legault government over its new language bill. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

These responses are a clear sign that the major party leaders recognize there's nothing to be gained — and much to lose — by opposing Legault's bill.

Quebec, with its 78 seats, will be an important battleground whenever the next election is called. 

Federal political leaders learned long ago that standing up for Quebec is always a better electoral strategy than standing against it.

Voters in the province can sense a winner. In 2011, they gave the NDP under Jack Layton 59 seats in the province as the party went on to become the Official Opposition for the first and (so far) only time. Former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney enjoyed similar largesse, taking 58 seats in the province on his way to forming the largest majority in Canadian history.

Stephen Harper evaded a confrontation with Quebec over the nation question shortly after taking office. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

There's also an argument that Parliament itself recognized the Quebecois as a nation back in 2006, when then-prime minister Stephen Harper faced the "Quebec question" almost immediately after becoming prime minister. Gilles Duceppe, the Bloc Quebecois leader at the time, introduced a motion for Parliament to recognize Quebec as a nation. 

Harper moved quickly to amend the wording to recognize the Quebecois as a nation "within a united Canada." The motion passed. Crisis averted.

It's telling that politicians today often seem to forget those final four words in the 2006 motion. It's also worth asking why a constitutional amendment is needed if Quebec and Canada already recognize both the French fact in Quebec and that its residents are a nation within Canada.

The Bill 96 paradox

But the political calculations being made in Ottawa right now are more about what might have been. Bill 96 could have included even more draconian limits on the use of English. Protests against the bill inside Quebec are coming from sovereigntists who argue it doesn't go far enough in protecting and promoting the use of French.

And some have argued that allowing the National Assembly to actually use a clause in the Constitution — the document that Quebec never signed — will make it difficult for separatists to claim in future that the Constitution was forced on them against their will.

Béland agreed there's a paradox in Legault's use of the Constitution to support his nationalist agenda.

"And certainly if this will go forward and also survive in front of the courts, that could certainly undermine one argument of the sovereigntist camp about the Constitution being illegitimate and not being really inclusive from a Quebec perspective," he told The House. "I think that this could certainly be an argument that could be used later by federalists."

Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-François Blanchet wants what his opponents want to avoid — a political brawl with Quebec over Bill 96. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Which brings us to the Bloc. 

For Yves-Francois Blanchet, Bill 96 is a hot issue in search of a spark. He tried Wednesday to create some friction by seeking unanimous consent for a Bloc motion to affirm Trudeau's statement that Quebec is a nation and French its common language. It was defeated when former Liberal cabinet minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said no.

It'll be worth watching to see how Blanchet uses this unrecorded vote to bolster his party's claim that the Bloc alone defends Quebec's interests in Ottawa — when the premier seems to be doing just fine on his own. Right now, he's the only federal party leader who thinks this is a good time to be discussing this serious issue.


Chris Hall

Former National Affairs Editor

Now retired, Chris Hall was the CBC's national affairs editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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