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The Erosion of Official Bilingualism

The potential consequences of Bill C-13

In March 2022, the federal Liberal government introduced Bill C-13 to amend the Official Languages Act of Canada. At the time, the government suggested that the amendments were intended to strengthen the ability of Francophones in both Quebec and the rest of Canada to receive services in French in federally regulated private businesses.

One way that the government hoped to achieve this was by permitting such businesses operating in the province of Quebec to follow either the Official Languages Act or the province’s Charter of the French Language – known as Bill 101 –which entrenched French as the official language of Quebec and restricted the use of English in the province. In May 2022, Bill 96 was passed in Quebec, amending parts of Bill 101 and causing further problems with the bill. To pass Bill 96, the government of Premier François Legault, used the Notwithstanding Clause – a constitutional mechanism that allows a government to override certain parts of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – to preemptively shield the law from any potential court challenges. By making explicit reference to Quebec’s Charter of the French Language, Bill C-13 now effectively endorses the preemptive use of the Notwithstanding Clause in federal law, something that the federal government has never done before.

Bill C-13 has received second reading and is now in front of the Standing Committee on Official Languages, which is reviewing the bill and considering proposals for amendments. A number of Liberal Members of Parliament representing ridings on the island of Montreal—including Anthony Housefather, Emmanuella Lambropoulos, and Marc Garneau—have raised concerns about this apparent endorsement of the Notwithstanding Clause in a federal law. They have also raised concerns about the possibility that the inclusion of a reference to the Charter of the French Language in the Official Languages Act could limit access to English services in federally regulated businesses in Quebec. The Charter of the French Language explicitly guarantees service in French – but does not guarantee service in English. The old Official Languages Act, on the other hand, guarantees access to services in both English and French. 

In Committee, the Bloc Québécois has introduced a number of amendments intended to further entrench the Charter of the French Language in any updated version of the Official Languages Act. The Conservative Party has joined the Bloc Québécois in its attempt to weaken the rights of English-speaking Quebecers, most recently when Joël Godin, Member of Parliament for a riding in the Quebec City region, introduced an amendment that would have the federal government recognize Quebec’s distinctive character when formulating language policy. Another member of the Committee – Liberal Francis Drouin, who represents an Eastern Ontario riding – dismissed the concerns of English-speaking Quebecers when he tweeted “the island of Montreal does not have a monopoly on Canada’s linguistic policy.” Niki Ashton, meanwhile, a NDP member on the Committee who represents a northern Manitoba riding, finds it “extremely concerning” that Liberal members are expressing reservations about a bill that originated from their own party. Why it is “extremely concerning” that a Liberal member might wish to fix or improve a bill put forward by their own party is not entirely clear. Furthermore, Arielle Kayabaga, a Liberal committee member who represents a riding in London, Ontario, seems to agree with the Bloc Québécois, Conservatives, and NDP when she says it is imperative that the House of Commons pass the bill “as soon as possible.”

The problem with Bill C-13 is that it entrenches the Charter of the French Language – and by extension the use of the Notwithstanding Clause – into federal law. It also introduces into the Official Languages Act the principle of asymmetry when it comes to language rights. Under the original Official Languages Act, the English and French languages were accorded equal status across the country. Should Bill C-13 pass, however, the Official Languages Act would be amended in such a way as to define Quebec as a French-speaking region of the country with a special responsibility to promote the use of the French language according to the terms of the province’s own Charter of the French Language. In the rush to advance the rights of French-speaking Canadians to access services from federally regulated businesses, the members of the Subcommittee on Official Languages, and the overwhelming majority of the rest of the House of Commons, appear intent on forsaking the rights of English-speaking Quebecers to access services in their language in their province. 

In addition, Bill C-13 seems to put forward the notion that Quebec should be treated in federal law as a distinct society when it comes to matters of language. Especially given that the Meech Lake Accord was defeated in large part over this issue three decades ago,this is a significant development that warrants further reflection and that should not be rushed through Parliament “as soon as possible.”

This  debate is also extremely troubling for another reason. If we, as a society, decide that it is acceptable to limit the rights of English-speaking Quebecers today, we are also opening the door to one day limiting the rights of French-speaking Canadians elsewhere in the country. The principle of asymmetry leads us on this path of revoking the rights of a minority group when that minority group no longer has the means to defend itself. 

It is thus time for members of the Subcommittee on Official Languages, Members of Parliament from all parties, and all Canadians, to stand up for the rights of linguistic minorities across the country. It is time for us all to slow this process down and to think about how minority groups across this country will be adversely affected by the proposed amendments to the Official Languages Act.