WHAT WE EXPECT FROM OUR GOVERNMENT PARTNERS

The Government of Quebec must:​

  • Acknowledge Quebec’s English-speaking community as a dynamic and vibrant contributor to Quebec society.
  • Recognize that as an open, modern, and progressive society, Quebec has a responsibility to respect official language minority community and other minorities.
  • Ensure that measures protecting and promoting the French language do not supress the rights –or diminish the vitality – of Quebec’s English-speaking community.

The Government of Canada must:

  • Recognize that Official Language Minority Communities, including the English-speaking community of Quebec, continue to be vulnerable.
  • Unequivocally support linguistic duality as a pillar of our country.
  • Ensure the equality of language rights and obligations in all areas of federal jurisdiction across Canada.
  • Exercise strong leadership in protecting and promoting Official Language Minority Communities across Canada.

POLICY MATTERS BLOG

March 12, 2024

TWO APPROACHES TO FREEDOM OF RELIGION IN CANADA

The Quebec Court of Appeal rendered judgement in March on an Act respecting the laicity of the State, commonly referred to as Bill 21. The complexity of the case before the Court cannot be overstated. Opponents of Bill 21 did a thorough job in challenging the legislation, but with one exception – the right of elected members of the National Assembly to wear religious symbols – none of the arguments succeeded.

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February 5, 2024

AN UPHILL BATTLE: HOMELESSNESS IN CANADA AND QUEBEC AND ITS LIKELY IMPACT ON THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING COMMUNITY OF QUEBEC

Homelessness and the housing crisis, two deeply interconnected social issues, are central concerns for contemporary Canadian policymakers. Housing affordability, defined by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Company as the ratio of average housing costs to after-tax income, continues to worsen.

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BILL C-13 AND THE OFFICIAL LANGUAGES ACT

Canada’s Official Languages Act, which turned 50 in 2020, is the only language-rights legislation that protects the interests of English-speaking Quebecers as a community. It sets out quasi-Constitutional rights for English-speaking Quebecers, including the right to access federal services in English; representation of English speakers within the Canadian government; and the right to work in English in the federal public service. The Act also supports the development of English and French linguistic minority communities and advances the equal status and use of English and French. Moreover, it provides the framework for much-needed financial support for our community’s institutions and networks in a variety of sectors including education, immigration, justice, and health.

Long in the making, Bill C-13 is a major update of the federal Official Languages Act, which was passed in the spring of 2023. It has proved controversial in part because it took an unprecedented asymmetrical approach to the application of language policy and because it incorporated elements of Quebec’s Bill 96. In so doing, it incorporated Bill 96’s pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause, which allows government to override rights guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Impassioned pleas from some Quebec Liberal MPs and Senators fell on deaf ears and the bill passed in 2023 with only Liberal MP Anthony Housefather standing in the House of Commons to oppose it. The law extends Quebec language regulations to businesses in Quebec like banks and airlines, that are subject to federal regulation.

THE NOTWITHSTANDING CLAUSE (Section 33 of the Canadian Constitution)

The Notwithstanding Clause, or Section 33 of the Canadian Constitution, permits parliament or the legislature of a province or territory to expressly declare in legislation, that a law – or parts of a law – can operate notwithstanding the fundamental freedoms or equality right contained in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Also known as the ‘override’ clause, the notwithstanding clause may not be applied to democratic, mobility, or language rights contained in the Charter.

The Notwithstanding Clause was a political compromise made during the patriation process of the Canadian Constitution from Britain in 1982. This led to the Constitution Act, 1982 and its entrenched bill of rights: the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Some provinces were concerned that the power of the courts to enforce the Charter would infringe upon the supremacy of the legislatures, also known as parliamentary sovereignty, or parliamentary supremacy. Hence the Notwithstanding Clause was born. Section 33 is a feature unique to Canada among countries with constitutional and liberal democracies, a system of government characterized by the ability of people whose rights or freedoms have been infringed or denied to apply to the courts for remedy. Once invoked, Section 33 effectively precludes judicial review of the legislation.

The use of this clause has proved controversial. Quebec has invoked it a number of times, mostly recently for Bills 21, which forbids the wearing of prominent religious symbols by public servants in positions of authority, and Bill 96, which updates the Charter of the French Language and reduces historic rights and access to services enjoyed by Quebec’s English-speaking community.

ACTION PLAN ON THE FUTURE OF THE FRENCH LANGUAGE

In January 2023, Quebec’s Minister of the French Language Jean-François Roberge announced the creation of an action group on the future of the French language. The group was to present recommendations to halt what the government perceives as a decline of French in Quebec. The group was to present its recommendations by the end of 2023, but in the meanwhile parts of the action plan have been announced, notably regarding immigration levels and tuition fee hikes for out-of-province university students.

What appears to be the last major piece of the action plan was revealed as a four-person committee presented a report at the beginning of February on the need for Quebec to act on a number of fronts in making French-language cultural content more visible or “discoverable” on international streaming platforms, like Netflix, Disney+ or Spotify. The government immediately signalled its intention to present legislation within the coming weeks or months. The expert committee also recommended the Quebec government collaborate with the federal government to act in this matter.

THE CHARTER OF THE FRENCH LANGUAGE AND BILL 96

The Charter of the French Language was enacted by the Parti Québécois government in 1977 to promote the primacy of the French language. Provisions of the Charter, commonly known as Bill 101, regulate government, commerce, business, education, and the courts. Access to English-language schools is restricted to children with a parent who attended elementary school in English. The Charter required the exclusive use of French on outdoor signs and in advertising. Businesses with 100 employees or more required a francization program.

The Charter was challenged before the courts shortly after its adoption. Several amendments followed. Despite these changes, thousands of English-speaking Quebecers no longer felt welcome and left the province. The percentage of the Quebec population with whose first official language spoken was English plummeted from 16.5 per cent in 1971 to 13.4 per cent in 2011. Today, Quebec’s English-speaking community widely acknowledges the need to protect French. However, the QCGN strongly believes that such protection can be achieved while respecting the institutions of the English-speaking community, which serve all Quebecers in French and English.

Passed in June 2022, as a signature piece of legislation from the first Coalition Avenir Québec government of Premier François Legault, Bill 96 is a massive and draconian overhaul of 1977’s Bill 101. The updated Charter of the French Language further constrains, among other things, the right to use English in obtaining services from and communicating with the Quebec government and the courts; imposes francisation requirements on business of 25 employees or more (the threshold used to be 50); puts limits on enrolment at English-language CEGEPS; and unilaterally establishes constitutional amendments defining Quebec and making French the only official and only common language. Shielded from some court challenges by the invocation of the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian constitution, Bill 96 is nonetheless the subject of several ongoing challenges. Its full effects have yet to be felt, with some measures (toughening of sign laws, for example) not set to take effect until 2025.

MINORITY LANGUAGE EDUCATION RIGHTS (BILL 40 and BILL 23)

Both pieces of legislation seek to increase centralized government control of elementary and secondary education in Quebec. Bill 40, adopted in 2020, attempted to abolish school boards and replace them with government-established and run service centres. While it has managed to do that on the French side, a court judgement following a challenge by English school boards and others determined in 2023 that Bill 40 does indeed violate constitutional guarantees giving the English-speaking community control over its own education system. The Quebec government is appealing that ruling and the QCGN is an intervenor in the case. For the time being, English school boards continue to exist and manage the English-language school system in Quebec.

A good chunk of Bill 23, which was passed in 2023, has been suspended as far as the English-speaking community is concerned, pending the outcome of the Bill 40 appeal. Most notably, Bill 23 includes clauses that give the government the power to name the directors-general of service centres, annul and replace decisions by these centres, and require the centres to produce annual management agreements. These changes are not in force on English school boards until Bill 40’s constitutionality is resolved.

THE RIGHT TO HEALTH AND SOCIAL SERVICES IN ENGLISH (BILL 15)

A massive piece of legislation to create a new body – Santé Québec – that will oversee the entire health- and social-services network in the province – Bill 15 – faced intense opposition from many quarters before it went through the National Assembly via closure at the end of 2023. Of particular concern to English-speaking Quebecers was the adoption of a last-minute amendment to include a mechanism in the bill to allow the withdrawal of minority-language services if numbers in a given region warrant. The bill eliminates local boards of hospital and sharply reduces the degree of community-based input in the management of local health institutions. The bill attracted widespread criticism, including an unprecedented letter of objection signed by six former premiers, both Liberal and Péquiste, as well as charitable foundations, health-care workers, many in the social-services sector and the QCGN. The last-minute amendment, put forward, withdrawn, and put forward again by Health Minister Christian Dubé, flies in the face of guarantees Premier François Legault made in 2022 about the government’s commitment to not further restrict English-language access to health services.

Article 15 of Quebec’s Act Respecting Health Services and Social Services recognizes the right of English-speaking persons to receive health and social services in the English language. Access to these services in the English language depends on the organizational structure and human, material and financial resources of the institutions and the extent to which they are provided by an access program. Section 509 of the Act respecting health services and social services provides for the creation of a Provincial Committee for the Provision of Health Services and Social Services in the English Language. The Committee is created by regulation and its mandate is to advise the government on the provision of health services and social services in the English language; and the approval, evaluation, and modification by the Government of each access program developed by an institution in accordance with section 348 of the Act.

QUEBEC’S SECULARISM LAW (BILL 21)

Passed by the first Coalition Avenir Québec government of François Legault in 2019, Bill 21 forbids certain government employees in positions of authority – teachers, judges, police officers, for example – from wearing religious symbols, including hijabs, kippahs, turbans, and such. Ostensibly a measure to support Quebec’s commitment to a secular state, the law was mostly upheld in Superior Court in April 2021, but is now under appeal by both sides. Premier Legault’s invocation of the notwithstanding clause attempt to shield the law from court challenges drew fire from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said governments should not be using the clause pre-emptively. Already, stories of teachers who have abandoned their careers in Quebec because of the law. A study by the Association of Canadian Studies found there has been an overall decline in a sense of acceptance as full-fledged members of Quebec society among the Jewish, Sikh, and Muslim communities. It was particularly high among Muslim women – at 80 per cent. As of the end of 2022, only Muslim women have lost jobs or been refused jobs because of Bill 21.

On February 8, 2024 the government of Quebec tabled Bill 56 An act to enable the Parliament of Québec to Preserve the Principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty with Respect to the Act Respecting the Laicity of the State to reenact the Notwithstanding Clause that overrides protections included in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. More details on the Notwithstanding Clause in section above.

ADDITIONAL READING AND RESOURCES

To provide a deeper look at the Official Languages Act, the QCGN worked with the Association for Canadian Studies (ACS) to prepare a special issue of Canadian Identities entitled Shifting Landscapes: English-speaking Quebec and the Official Languages Act. We also prepared an infographic on Quebec’s English-speaking Communities and Official Languages for the 50th anniversary of the Act in 2019. Furthermore, we recommend ACS’s Winter 2019 issue of Canadian Issues dedicated to the Official Languages Act entitled Linguistic Duality De jure and de facto. Click on the thumbnails below to download copies of these documents. You can also obtain hard copies of these magazines by contacting Rita Legault, our Director of Communications and Media Relations, at rita.legault@qcgn.ca.