Bloc Québécois tables motion on Quebec nationhood, constitutional change again

Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet holds a press conference on Parliament Hill amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The Bloc Québécois is taking a second stab at getting MPs to recognize Quebec’s right to unilaterally change the Constitution in line with proposed reforms to the province’s language law.

Leader Yves-François Blanchet tabled a motion Tuesday in the House of Commons asking lawmakers to recognize that right, after confronting a single “nay” from a lone member of Parliament last month that stonewalled the Bloc’s initial move.

Blanchet’s motion seeks to clear a path for House recognition of Premier Francois Legault’s attempt to amend the country’s supreme law by affirming Quebec as a nation with French as its official language and common tongue.

The legislation, known as Bill 96, has stirred up debate as experts fret that constitutional acknowledgment of a distinct society would push courts to interpret laws differently in Quebec or hand it greater provincial power.

READ MORE: Bloc Québécois fails to pass motion on Quebec nationhood, constitutional change

Blanchet said Quebecers need to know where the parties stand ahead of a likely election this year, despite the fact that all parties voted in favour of a nearly identical motion less than three weeks ago.

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“A few months before an election, people have to know who stands for what,” he told reporters.

‘People in Quebec will want to know: who is who? Where do the Conservatives stand ? Where do the Liberals stand?”

Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez suggested Blanchet was hammering on the issue to stir up an us-versus-them standoff in Quebec.

‘That’s a debate that was settled,” he said, citing a 2006 motion tabled by then-prime minister Stephen Harper that recognized that “the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada.”

“Maybe they’d rather have a squabble,” Rodriguez said.

Click to play video: 'Quebec tables bill to reinforce and protect French language'
Quebec tables bill to reinforce and protect French language

An initial Justice Department analysis concluded the province can go ahead with the changes, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last month.

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But some experts disagree, saying constitutional tweaks to language use require a parliamentary green light. They also warn against treating the reform law’s provisions as symbolic baubles on an unchanged Charter of Rights and Freedoms, highlighting potential legal implications from the Constitution on down.

Bill 96 bill comes at a particularly sensitive time for fraught issues like cultural identity in Quebec, a key battleground for all five parties as a possible election looms.

Federalist leaders remain wary of alienating French speakers, who make up roughly 80 per cent of Quebec’s population, while Blanchet aims to tap into French-Canadian nationalism to bolster his third-place standing in the Commons.

Read more: Anglo groups worry Bill 96 will create ‘charter-free’ zone in Quebec

On top of its constitutional provisions, Bill 96 includes tougher sign laws and stronger language requirements for businesses, such as those in federally regulated industries, as well as for governments and schools.

Anthony Housefather, Liberal MP for Mount Royal in Montreal, says Blanchet’s motion does not amount to an agreement by the House to a constitutional amendment, which would require legislation, public consultation, legal analysis and extensive debate.

Meanwhile, Section 43 of the Constitution states that an amendment for “any provision that relates to the use of the English or the French language within a province” must be authorized by the Senate, the House and the legislature of the province to which it applies.

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The reform bill’s would-be constitutional edit “cannot be used to reduce or impact the rights of Quebec’s English speaking minority in any way,” Housefather said. Those rights include the Constitution’s recognition in Section 133 that English and French have equal standing in the Quebec legislature and courts.

A vote on the motion is expected late Wednesday afternoon.

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