Canada’s justice minister on Wednesday criticized Quebec’s recently passed language law, while also detailing how and when the federal government could get involved in the legal challenge of the province’s controversial religious symbols law.
His statements seem to have angered the Prime Minister of Quebec.
“It makes no sense,” said François Legault, adding that the majority of Quebecers are in favor of both laws.
David Lametti weighed in on Quebec’s new language bill, Bill 96, passed into law on Tuesday, and said he wouldn’t rule out Ottawa’s participation in legal proceedings against it.
“We will keep all options on the table,” he said. “We will not rule out the opportunity to participate in judicial challenges where we believe it is necessary to protect Canadians’ constitutional rights.”
The far-reaching new language law is extensive.
It restricts the use of English in courts and public services and imposes stricter language requirements on small businesses and municipalities. It also limits the number of students who can take English-taught CEGEPs, which are junior colleges, and increases the number of French courses students must take at that level.
Lametti said he was concerned about the possible effects of the law on immigrants, access to justice and health care in both French and English, as well as indigenous rights.
He also criticized Quebec’s preemptive use of the notwithstanding clause that essentially protects Bill 96 from legal challenges based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Quebec also used the clause notwithstanding for its controversial Religious Symbols Act – also known as Bill 21.
“I remember those debates when the Constitution came into effect and the clause notwithstanding had to be the last word,” Lametti said during a meeting with reporters on Wednesday morning.
“It wasn’t supposed to be the first word.”
Lametti, who is also the federal MP for the LaSalle-Émard-Verdun Montreal rides, has answered a series of questions from reporters about the federal government’s possible involvement in a legal challenge against both Bill 96 and Bill 21.
In what appears to be Ottawa’s most definitive statement yet about involvement in the legal battle against the Religious Symbols Act, Laetti said the federal government would be willing to present its views to Canada’s Supreme Court.
“We have always said from the beginning that we are concerned about this bill and that we would leave some room for the people of Quebec to speak out in the courts,” Lametti said.
“As the [Quebec] When the Court of Appeal makes a decision, we go to the Supreme Court to give our opinion on this because: [at that point]it would by definition be a national issue.”
In the past, Trudeau has said he preferred to stay out of the Bill 21 lawsuit, while being open to intervene at some point in the process. So far, only the Supreme Court of Quebec has ruled on Bill 21.
The case is widely expected to end in the Supreme Court of Canada.
‘blatant disrespect’ towards Quebecers, says Legault
Quebec Prime Minister François Legault accused Lametti of committing himself to going to the Supreme Court before the Quebec Court of Appeals even made its own ruling. He also had harsh words for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“It’s a blatant disrespect from Justin Trudeau towards Quebecers,” Legault said.
Legault also described a potential legal challenge to the new language law as further evidence of a lack of respect for Quebec.
The passing of Bill 96 on Tuesday came after weeks of protests over concerns it would violate the rights of Anglophones, allophones and Indigenous communities.
The Legault government has maintained that the new law would do no such thing, but many legal experts disagree.
The federal justice minister expressed concern about a clause in the language law that gives the Quebec Language Bureau wide-ranging powers to investigate companies suspected of not working in the province’s official language.
“I am a resident of Quebec. As a resident of Quebec, I am concerned about access to health care. I am concerned about the ability to conduct searches and seizures and whether that violates charter rights,” Lametti said.