The federal party leaders’ debate September 9 sparked a political firestorm in Quebec after the moderator confronted Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet over two controversial pieces of provincial legislation in Quebec: Bill 21, the banning of religious symbols in the public sector, which is now a law; and Bill 96, which would, if passed, more or less legislate French as the only language allowed in Quebec public life.
But, because the question – in which Blanchet was asked to explain the two laws that many in Quebec and across the country view as discriminatory – came from a non-Quebecer, it was denounced as Quebec bashing.
It was a gift to the Bloc Québécois, and Blanchet has since made much political mileage over it. But, with hungry eyes on Quebec’s federal seats, Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh all felt compelled to call for a formal apology from the consortium of media broadcasters responsible for the debate and the question.
The Debate Broadcast Group issued a statement saying the question was designed to give Blanchet a chance to explain Bill 21 and Bill 96. They did not apologize and rightly so. It is the duty and obligation of journalists to ask hard questions and to hold politicians accountable for their actions.
Not in Quebec, apparently. The National Assembly promptly adopted a motion condemning Shachi Kurl, the moderator of the debate for having asked the question. The motion said, without apparent irony, that Quebec is an “open, free, strong and proud nation that is totally capable of having frank discussions about often delicate subjects and to legislate on such subjects.”
The motion adopted by Quebec MNAs could be viewed as ironic since both pieces of legislation mean that people in Quebec are not entitled to the same rights and freedoms that citizens in the rest of Canada enjoy. To our mind, the question was not an attack on Quebec but rather the politicians who would deprive us of those constitutional rights.
The explanatory notes for Bill 96 state, “The bill specifies that it has effect despite certain provisions of the Charter of human rights and freedoms and the Constitution Act, 1982.”
Ghislain Picard, the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, put it bluntly. “The Legault government’s Bill 96 is a formal attack on the constitutional language rights of First Nations.”
Picard added that the federal government should ensure the constitutional accountability of provinces to Indigenous peoples living there.
That’s because Bill 96 would set a limit “on the duration and renewal of the exemption that allows certain children to not receive instruction in French.” That means more English-language schools will be forced to close.
Courtroom rights to be tried in English are also threatened. In Eeyou Istchee, holding criminal court in French has led to situations in which some defendants didn’t even know that their pleas had been changed from not guilty to guilty.
As well, Cree enterprises with 25 or more employees would be compelled to conduct all their business in French.
Of the 60 Indigenous languages in Canada only three are expected to survive – Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway. Given Quebec’s determination and desire to “protect, promote and preserve the French language,” one wonders why Indigenous languages are not afforded similar protection. To the contrary Bill 96 appears designed to kill any language in Quebec in order to protect French.
It’s a mystery why, in 2021, that Bill 96 is not considered cultural genocide.