Use of notwithstanding clause in Quebec language reform bill causes debate

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CAQ government preparing to table French language reform bill
WATCH: Very few details have been released but the government has indicated it does plan to use the notwithstanding clause. As Global's Raquel Fletcher explains, this has led to some lively debates at the National Assembly. – Apr 30, 2021

The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government will soon table its promised French language reform bill. The details have not been revealed yet, except that it plans to use the notwithstanding clause. This has lead to lively debate at the National Assembly.

READ MORE: Ottawa wants to guarantee right to work in French in federally regulated companies

The government will table its plan to reform Quebec’s French language charter, known as Bill 101, before the legislature breaks for summer. The last day of this legislative session is June 11.

“But we will not bulldoze anything through,” said Premier François Legault as a promise during a debate over spending credits at the National Assembly.

This is little comfort to Liberal MNA Greg Kelley, who remembers how Legault’s government limited debate twice before: when it forced the adoption of its secularism bill and its bill to get rid of school board elections.

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“I’m really concerned because this government has not shown much regard or care for people’s individual and in some cases collective rights,” Kelley said.

Legault said that he is the premier of all Quebecers, but as leader of the only French jurisdiction in North America, he said he has a duty to protect the French language. That’s why, he said, this new bill will have the notwithstanding clause written right into it.

“The notwithstanding clause is supposed to be used as a last resort,” Kelley said.

READ MORE: Provincial Liberals unveil plan to protect and promote French in Quebec

Kelley said he doesn’t see the justification. The Liberal Party recently presented its own plan, with items like appointing an independent French language commissioner and applying Bill 101 to businesses with 25-49 employees. He said none of these proposals require the notwithstanding clause.

But the government says it’s a legitimate tool.

“The notwithstanding clause is not a rights trampler,” said Christopher Skeete, the parliamentary assistant to the premier for relations with English-speaking Quebecers.

READ MORE: Quebec plans to expand French language law to federally regulated businesses

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He added that there’s a precedent.

“Former Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa was the one who actually trail-blazed the process for using the notwithstanding clause in terms of protecting the French language,” Skeete said.

“But five years later he stopped using the notwithstanding clause because he realized how divisive it can be to society,” Kelley said.

Kelley is worried the CAQ’s new legislation will again create divisions between Quebec’s francophones and anglophones.

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