Adoption of Bill 96 means ‘it’s a sad day for Quebec,’ lawyer Grey says

Katie R. Ochoa

Brace for a long fight, the noted human rights lawyer says — possibly to the Supreme Court of Canada, or even international courts.

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There will be legal challenges and a public pressure campaign against Bill 96, which was voted into law Tuesday afternoon.

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Noted human rights lawyer Julius Grey said a team of lawyers and rights activists is already planning the best way to legally challenge the law.

“There are a lot of lawyers who are thinking about it,” Grey said. “We’ll work it out and we’ll decide who plays what part. It’s not going to be one or two or three people; it will be more than that to try to do the best possible job.”

Called An Act Respecting French, the Official and Common Language of Quebec, Bill 96 aims to update and strengthen Bill 101, the French-language charter introduced in 1977, and brings in measures that affect everything from immigration, education and health care to businesses, municipalities and the judicial system.

The bill gives the Office québécois de la langue française search and seizure powers, without the need for a warrant, to ensure compliance.

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“It’s a sad day for Quebec,” Grey said. “I think it is a terrible law. It has destroyed the harmony that existed for the last 25 years. We had relative language peace, and now the balance has been disturbed.

“I think we’ll be in greater tension, because this law really is unjust to everyone, including francophones.”

Grey said the new law sets the stage for years of linguistic tensions.

“The law will do absolutely no good to anyone. No one will feel they have gained anything, as a result, the language activists will feel we didn’t go far enough. I think the best solution will be for the courts to come in.”

Grey expects a long fight, possibly to the Supreme Court of Canada and even to international courts.

While Bill 96 invokes the notwithstanding clause to override provisions contained in the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights, Grey noted there has already been a challenge to the use of the clause in Bill 21, which bans teachers and police officers, among other public servants, from wearing religious symbols on the job. The outcome of that challenge will have consequences for Bill 96, he said.

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The Quebec Community Groups Network has vowed to support any fight against the law, and plans to mount a public awareness campaign, starting with a protest in Montreal set for Thursday evening.

“We are deeply disappointed and frustrated that Bill 96 was adopted today without any significant improvements since it was first tabled. It does not reflect our vision of an inclusive Quebec where French is the common language,” QCGN president Marlene Jennings said in a statement.

Among its concerns — and contrary to government assurances — the QCGN says only so-called historic anglophones with eligibility certificates will have access to services in English under Bill 96, leaving out between 300,000 and 500,000 English-speaking Quebecers.

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In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he had some concerns about the law, and noted the importance of protecting minority rights across the country, while adding he recognizes the need to protect the French language and culture.

“I know how important it is to support francophone communities outside Quebec, but it’s also very important to protect the anglophone community within Quebec,” Trudeau told reporters.

Meanwhile, the activist group Impératif Français expressed its disappointed with Bill 96, saying it doesn’t go far enough.

The group’s president, Jean-Paul Perreault, said the provisions of Bill 101 that apply to primary and secondary schools should have been extended to CEGEPs, so that only those have been educated in English in Canada, or their children, would be eligible to attend English CEGEPs.

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Instead, Bill 96 places enrolment caps in the English system, limits how many francophones and allophones can access English CEGEPs, and requires all students there to take more courses in French.

“The government needed to go further by extending Bill 101 to CEGEPs and the first year of university,” Perreault said. Its failure to do so means language tensions in Quebec “will come back,” he predicted. “In how long? It’s hard for me to say.”

Perreault called those who have raised concerns about Bill 96 “alarmists,” and said he is happy the debate around the new legislation has been mostly sober.

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The president of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal said the business community is concerned about the potential impact for companies based in the city.

The new law will require all business contracts to be in French, and will also extend existing language provisions to companies of 25 or more employees, when it previously only applied to those with 50 employees or more.

“The business community supports the law’s objective but remains concerned about the impact for our small- and medium-sized businesses,” Chamber president Michel Leblanc wrote on Twitter.

Reached by phone Tuesday night, Antoine Aylwin, a partner at the law firm Fasken, said while the law means a lot changes for some businesses, there will be an adjustment period, so there is no need to panic.

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“I’ve been around for a while and every time you put new requirements on the industry, there is reluctance, either to change or to add responsibility or requirements, because when entrepreneurs are filling our forms, they’re not creating value for the business. It’s a typical reaction to any change,” Aylwin said. “Unfortunately, you have to take care of it, and spend time on it, but it might be less painful than you think. When you take the time to do the assessment, it’s manageable most of the time.”

For example, a requirement for businesses with English trademarks to change their exterior signs to make French predominant, will only come into force in three years, he said.

Fasken has published a guide to the law on its website.

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Presse Canadienne contributed to this report.

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