The CAQ government caused some concern in Quebec’s anglophone community Friday, as they made public the changes they’re hoping to see in federal language laws.
Among their demands, Quebec wants Canada to recognize it as a protector of French, and to be granted more powers to do so. That has anglophone groups worrying the rights of English speakers could be in danger.
“It’s a non-starter, it’s a no-go. It’s a full stop, turn around, do a u-turn and go back,” said Marlene Jennings, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network.
The province published its formal position on what the new version of Canada’s Official Languages Act should look like, ahead of federal efforts to “modernize” the law this year.
“What we are looking for is the acknowledgment in the law that we are in Canada, a bilingual country, but that French is in the much, I would say, weaker position,” Quebec Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Sonia LeBel told Global News in an interview.
Quebec wants the federal government to acknowledge that of the country’s two official languages, French is the only vulnerable one, and that Quebec has a vital cross-country role in protecting it.
“Maybe we don’t have the jurisdiction because it’s a federal jurisdiction, but we certainly have a moral duty to to be a leader in the French community towards Canada from coast to coast to coast, and that this is something that we want them to recognize,” Lebel explained.
Anglophone rights advocates say the English language is under threat in Quebec, and they worry that if Quebec is recognized as the guardian of French, English would be further squeezed out of things like education and health care.
“We’re not too sure we want to give this provincial government exclusive jurisdiction on the question of dealing with the English-speaking community,” said Quebec Liberal MNA Greg Kelley, who is also the official opposition’s spokesperson on relations with the Anglophone community.
“This government has shown a lack of respect for the English community many times since they’ve been elected.”
Jennings pointed to an ongoing court battle in which English school boards are fighting with the Quebec government for the right to exist. She also mentioned the lack of COVID-19 information available to anglophones until the pandemic was several months old.
“We’ve had to fight tooth and nail for the provincial government to recognize and give us effective access to services in English,” she said.
LeBel insists the goal is not to take away anglophone rights.
“This is not it,” she told Global News. “We’re not asking power to put our thumb on the English community. We just have to recognize that even if we are a majority of French-speaking people in Quebec, we are not a majority within Canada.”
Quebec also wants Bill 101 applied to federal institutions in the province, which McGill Faculty of Law Dean Robert Leckey says would go against Canada’s constitution.
“The British North America Act from 1867 provides guarantees, for example, of the right to use English in core institutions in Quebec and in Ottawa,” Leckey said.
In a statement, Minister of Official Languages Mélanie Joly told Global News she is devoted to protecting and promoting both official languages.
“Defending the rights of Francophone minorities outside Quebec and defending the rights of the Anglophone minority in Quebec is always a priority for our government,” she said. “We will always defend a vision of a country where our official languages can and do thrive. And we will do so in our area of jurisdiction.”
Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages Raymond Théberge said in a press release he expects the government to introduce a bill to modernize the Official Languages Act as soon as possible.