Canada: Chris Selley: There is no principle that Ottawa won't readily abandon simply to appease Quebec

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a man wearing a suit and tie: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives a thumbs up in March as he leaves a news conference with Quebec Premier François Legault, whose province's Bill 96 does more than chip away at minority rights, Chris Selley writes. © Provided by National Post Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives a thumbs up in March as he leaves a news conference with Quebec Premier François Legault, whose province's Bill 96 does more than chip away at minority rights, Chris Selley writes.

Justin Trudeau is not known for holding his tongue when it comes to denouncing intolerance, past or present. He has delivered no fewer than eight apologies in the House of Commons , easily the most of any prime minister. He apologized to the Sikh asylum-seekers on the steamship Komagata Maru, which was turned away from Vancouver in 1914, “for (Canada’s) indifference to your plight.” He apologized to the victims of government-sanctioned discrimination against gay and lesbian Canadians: “for robbing you of your potential; for treating you like you were dangerous, indecent, and flawed.”

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“The next time you see a woman in a hajib or a family out for a stroll, give them a smile. Show them they are respected,” Trudeau suggested in opening remarks at a press conference on Tuesday, reacting to last Sunday’s murder of four members of a Muslim family in London, Ont., which police are calling a premeditated act of hatred. “Show them they are loved and that they have friends and allies across this country who will stand with them and fight for them.”

It probably all sounded great in his head. But it led to a rather obvious question from the Toronto Star: “Is it time for your government to speak out more strongly against Bill 21 in Quebec?”

There is no reason to believe the accused murderer even knows what Bill 21 is. Had Trudeau not spoken of actively befriending and cherishing Muslim Canadians “across this country,” one might reasonably argue the question was offside. But he did. So it wasn’t. And he had no good answer.

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“I think it is extremely important to recognize that provinces have the right to put forward bills that align with their priorities,” said Trudeau.

Any priorities? Really? He and his then-intergovernmental affairs minister Dominic LeBlanc clucked their tongues in 2018 when Ontario invoked the notwithstanding clause to cut Toronto City Council’s complement; not so much when Quebec uses it to discriminate against Quebecers who wear hijabs, kippas, turbans or crucifixes — all of which are forbidden under Bill 21 for civil servants in positions deemed to be “of authority,” such as teachers, judges and police officers.

Trudeau’s dissembling demonstrated an increasingly central fact about federal Canadian politics: Not only do the party leaders treat Quebec totally differently when it comes to the protection of minority rights, in a barely disguised lust to steal nationalist votes from the Bloc Québécois; hardly anyone else in Ottawa is willing or able to buck that trend.

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Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has pledged never to interfere on Bill 21, in the name of respecting provincial autonomy. In an interview with CBC’s Vassy Kapelos last year, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh suggested he might convince Quebecers to change their minds about people like him by “going to Quebec (in his turban and) saying, ‘I love the French language, I respect the unique identity of Quebec and I want to fight to defend it and I’m proud of who I am’.”

It might be a defensible, if naïve position, if only Singh and the NDP weren’t otherwise so quick elsewhere to call out racism both personal and systemic.

O’Toole, Singh and Trudeau are even more united in supporting Quebec’s efforts to further protect the French language. Bill 96, which passed first reading in the National Assembly last month, would , among other things, cap enrollment at English-language CEGEPS, increase the number of businesses where French is mandatory, and limit who is entitled to government services in English. It would expand the mandate of the Office Québécois de la Langue Française (OQLF) — creators of Pastagate — and create a whole new ministry to protect the French language.

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Not only do the party leaders all support it; they support the fallacies underpinning it. “Between 1996 and 2016, the percentage of people whose first language is French dropped from 52 per cent to 46 per cent,” O’Toole told the House of Commons during a debate last year on the state of the French language. “I completely agree with … Quebecers who are concerned by the decline of the French language,” Trudeau said last year .

Plot language data from the census on a graph and, mostly, you get a series of straight lines. Even in Montreal, in 2016, 87.4 per cent said they spoke French, versus 86.3 per cent 20 years earlier. Nationalists hone in on just a few dubious data points: very slight declines in the use of French “most often” at home, for example, and a larger decline in French as a mother tongue. But since when is it the government’s business what language people speak at home, or spoke first, so long as they can communicate in the official language(s)? Is French the real issue, or is it something rather less salubrious?

Bill 96 threatens to destroy an imperfect but very useful linguistic détente: The anglophones who couldn’t live with Bill 101, which in the 1970s represented the province’s first major crackdown on languages other than French, mostly headed to Ontario decades ago. Those who stayed fought and succeeded in sanding 101’s sharper edges down, and came to accept the result. Why overturn that apple cart now? Last month, a Léger poll for the Association for Canadian Studies and the Quebec Community Groups Network found 49 per cent of francophones felt the threat to the French language was no more acute now than in years past. And 27 per cent of francophones said they thought Bill 96 would “worsen relations between English and French-speaking Quebecers.”

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Yet hardly anyone dares question it. Last year, when Montreal Liberal MP Emmanuella Lambropoulos wondered aloud at a committee meeting whether all these numbers amount to a crisis, she was denounced from the heavens by Bloc and Conservative MPs alike, and indeed by her own government’s official languages minister, fellow Montreal MP Mélanie Joly. ( She declared herself “stunned.”) Lambropoulos offered to resign from the committee for her sins, and presumably will not make the same mistake twice.

Bill 96 does more than chip away at minority language rights, though: It attempts to enshrine in the Constitution, without asking any of the other provinces, that “Quebecers form a nation,” that “French shall be the only official language of Quebec,” and that French “is also the common language of the Quebec nation.” It is as unclear what that all means — none of the key terms are defined — as it is whether or not the manoeuvre is legal: Is this a constitutional move Quebec can do in consultation only with Ottawa, like getting rid of religious schools in 2000, or do the other provinces need to be involved? Trudeau has thus far declined to release the legal opinion that he says supports Quebec’s position — as he and the other party leaders all do.

In any case, it’s a fine comeuppance to the smirking geniuses who, in 2006, passed a motion in the House of Commons declaring the “Québécois” a nation. It was no big deal, proponents argued; it was merely acknowledging a fact. “As we objectively review our own constitutional history, we must conclude the sociological concept of les Québécois nation within a united Canada is something we neither fear nor resist,” Liberal MP Mario Silva told the House. “In fact, that very sociological nation has always existed in spirit.”

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  Hanes: Many Quebec anglos wonder who, if anyone, is in their corner It’s an unsettling time to be an English-speaking Quebecer. Not only is the Quebec government beefing up provincial laws to protect the French language in ways that could redefine who has access to services in English, it’s planning constitutional amendments that could make anglophones and other minorities second-class citizens while defensively shielding the entirety of Bill 96 with the notwithstanding clause. If that weren’t disconcerting enough, the federal government tabled its own bill this week, which the main umbrella group for English-speaking Quebecers blasted as “a clear attack on the equality of Canada’s two official languages .

Opponents, such as Conservative MP Michael Chong — who resigned as then prime minister Stephen Harper’s intergovernmental affairs minister over the matter — warned it was obviously much more than that, or else the Bloc Québécois wouldn’t be so eager to get some version of the motion passed. “To me, recognizing Quebecers as a nation, even inside a united Canada, implies the recognition of ethnicity, and I cannot support that,” Chong said . “I do not believe in an ethnic nationalism. I believe in a civic nationalism.” (Chong, O’Toole’s foreign affairs critic, declined to comment on the current situation.)

That was right around the time the “reasonable accommodations” debate about minority religious rights (but really, mostly, about Muslims) kicked off in earnest in Quebec. And now, here we are:  Public school teachers can’t wear hijabs in the classroom and Singh, a lawyer, couldn’t serve as a Crown attorney in Quebec without doffing his turban.

Not taking your country seriously can have consequences, perhaps, and in theory they might go far beyond Quebec.

— — — — —

“If Quebec can do it, why can’t Alberta?” asked the famous “firewall letter,” addressed to then-premier Ralph Klein in 2000 by Stephen Harper, Tom Flanagan and other Reform-era luminaries. Now, in 2021, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has signalled his approval of Quebec’s Bill 96 gambit. Flanagan says Kenney hopes to use his referendum on equalization, and perhaps a Bill 96-style constitutional amendment, to force Ottawa and the other provinces to the table.

Flanagan notes the Supreme Court’s reference on Quebec succession, which identifies “a right to initiate constitutional change (held by) each participant in Confederation.”

“In our view,” the justices wrote, “the existence of this right imposes a corresponding duty on the (provinces) to engage in constitutional discussions in order to acknowledge and address democratic expressions of a desire for change in other provinces.” Hint, hint.

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Rejigging equalization wouldn’t be the end of the world. Nor would a looser, more asymmetrical federation in which provinces are freer to create their own “distinct societies.” But there is no evidence whatsoever Trudeau supports either idea, in Quebec or elsewhere. His government’s policy book currently contains national programs on day care and long-term care, to name just two areas of provincial jurisdiction.

Let’s be clear: Pandering to Quebec for votes — pandering to anyone, for that matter — with little regard for the long-term consequences has a long and rich history. What’s truly extraordinary, and frightening, about this moment is just how difficult it is to buck the trend.

Bill 21, at least, provoked honest debate, with the provincial Liberals and left-wing Québec Solidaire opposing it. The 1995 referendum question was a fiction, proposing unilateral discussions on secession between Quebec City and Ottawa that would sideline the other members of the federation, but “at least it was a clash of ideas, unlike today,” says Jack Jedwab, president and CEO of the Association for Canadian Studies.

In 2018, then-British prime minister Theresa May was forced to release the legal advice about her Brexit plan after her government was found in contempt of parliament — by a House of Commons in which she was only just shy of a majority government. In Ottawa, even the opposition daren’t question the daily dogma coming out of Quebec.

“In Canada there are all sorts of issues you can’t question. You can’t question whether French is in danger. … You can’t question whether certain words can be uttered or not,” says constitutional lawyer Julius Grey. “And in Quebec we’re setting up a system (that’s) populist, and which disregards individual minority rights when the issue is important to the majority.”

That’s the antithesis of Trudeau’s brand, of course. We’re just meant not to notice, or care, or maybe even listen. There was a time when federal politicians would try to get away with saying one thing in the anglophone media universe and another thing in the francophone media universe. They don’t seem to do that so much anymore, perhaps because the internet makes it so much easier to catch them out. Alas, it wasn’t consistency that replaced it. Now, it seems, we’re simply supposed to accept that they’re all a bunch of flaming hypocrites who’ll say anything they need to get them from one minute to the next.

It was Quebec’s nationalist politicians who led them expertly down that garden path, but no one knows what lies at the end of it.

• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: cselley

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