Quebec runs roughshod over Charter rights while feds stay largely silent — again

Article originally published in The Star

My first ever op-ed was published in the Montreal Gazette on March 3, 2011. Directly above my piece in the print edition of the paper was a column from Don Macpherson, a venerated, long-time Gazette columnist, entitled “Quebec toying with rights for short-term political gain.” His column detailed how a proposed bill by the Quebec Liberal government — led by Jean Charest, now a Conservative leadership contender — would effectively curtail anglophone rights in the province by limiting access to services in English.

It’s been over a decade a since Macpherson’s column was written, but the headline of his column is about as evergreen as headlines go. It doesn’t matter which party is in power or what year it is — Quebec politicians using language strife in the province for political gain is as Quebecois as poutine itself.

As such, it is unsurprising that Quebec Premier François Legault and his Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government would try and further exploit linguistic anxieties in the province for their own gain. Bill 96, formally known as “An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec,” was introduced in the National Assembly a little over a year ago under the guise of further strengthening French in the province.

There are multiple objectionable parts to the bill, and there are several aspects that are blatantly unconstitutional. Arguably, one of the most egregious elements is contained in provisions that relate to strengthening the powers of investigation and inspection of the province’s language police, known officially as the Office québécois de la langue française. It would allow them to enter premises other than homes or dwellings, and access any and all electronic devices and any other documents located on the premises — all subject to the whims of the individual language inspector.

If this sounds like it goes directly against Section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states “Everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure,” it’s because that’s precisely the case. Section 111 of Bill 96 lays out this constitutional overreach very clearly, and nowhere in the bill does it further specify there would at the very least need to be a requirement of reasonable suspicion — or the need to obtain a warrant or other legal authorization — in order to enter the premises and conduct a search.

Whatever one’s opinions about anglophones or allophones in Quebec not being francophone or Québécois enough, surely all reasonable people should be able to agree on the patently absurd notion of allowing such a high degree of unconstitutional intrusion from the state.

While legal experts and scholars have been ringing the alarm on Bill 96 since its introduction in the National Assembly, the overall reaction from our elected officials in Ottawa has been muted at best, and downright cowardly at worst.

It is unsurprising, though, given the reaction of our federal politicians to the Legault government’s first foray into the pre-emptive invocation of the notwithstanding clause with Bill 21. Premier Legault and the governing CAQ are likely very aware Bill 96 is unconstitutional, which is why they are once again pre-emptively invoking the notwithstanding clause to make any potential forthcoming legal challenges much more difficult.

That a provincial government would rely on the notwithstanding clause twice within four years is worrying in and of itself, but the fact that we’re not having a more serious national conversation about the casual use of the clause to undermine fundamental rights in this country is just bonkers.

We either stand for fundamental rights, or we don’t — and it’s becoming clearer every day that we do not.

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