Tom Mulcair: Legault reverting to age-old sport of Anglo-bashing

Stirring resentment against others isn’t exactly new in politics. Today we’re likely to call it “populism.” It leads to things like Trump's Muslim ban. It can also incite people who espouse racist "replacement" theories to carry out violent acts.

This is some of the most vile politics there is.

Historically, people of character have stood up to populist bullies. It takes political courage and a deep understanding of the importance of defending constitutionally guaranteed rights. The "populists" may indeed be more popular but letting them win could destroy the fabric of a nation.

When the Harper Conservatives were in power, they used the issue of Muslim face coverings at citizenship ceremonies as fodder for intolerance. They intentionally associated the word "barbaric" with certain practices, knowing it would then be applied to people. It was good politics, in their view.

'A LOW POINT' IN OUR HISTORY

The Conservatives even proposed a snitch line to tell on one’s neighbours. It was a low point in Canadian political history.

Stephen Harper was thrown out in the ensuing election.

Today, there are two pieces of Quebec legislation that target religious and linguistic minorities. These laws should concern all Canadians. While he often talks about rights, Justin Trudeau has chosen to stand there, arms folded, and do nothing to defend people whose freedoms are being affected. He appears to be afraid of displeasing François Legault.

Language legislation is nothing new in Quebec. Forty-five years ago, René Levesque’s government brought in Bill 101. It sought to make French the normal language of work, of business and of government in Quebec. There was widespread support for those principles.

More contentiously, it steered all newcomers, even English-speaking Canadian kids, to French school. When the Canadian Charter of rights came into force, its “Canada clause” collided with Bill 101’s "Quebec clause." The Attorney General of Canada was there, front and centre, defending the right of Canadians who move to Quebec to study in English. It was a slam-dunk and the Canadian Charter was upheld.

It wasn’t a case of fighting the principle of protecting and promoting French. It was a question of defending constitutionally protected rights and the mobility of Canadians within their own country. That is central to the role of the Attorney General of Canada.

'PURE DERELICTION OF DUTY'

Today’s Attorney General, David Lametti, has done nothing to intervene in the cases challenging Bill 21 and help the minorities whose rights are being denied. It’s pure dereliction of duty.

Bill 101 also went way beyond just requiring French on signs. It stated that all business signs had to be French only, you couldn’t add another version.

That too was thrown out and the Supreme Court ruled that while Quebec could make French compulsory on all signs and even require that French be markedly predominant, it couldn’t ban other languages. In that case as well, fundamental freedoms were in question and the Attorney General of Canada was there to defend the constitution.

After the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on the language of signs, Robert Bourassa’s Liberals broke a solemn promise and refused to respect the decision. Instead, his government invoked the notwithstanding clause and brought in a law with arcane inside/outside rules for bilingualism. It led to the resignation of several highly-respected anglophone members of his caucus. Guess what? In the ensuing election, having thus stood up to les Anglais, Bourassa won a sweeping new majority.

Even the United Nations got in on the Act and it was determined that Bourassa’s law breached international covenants applicable to Canada. Before it could go any further, the minister responsible for Bill 101, the exceptional Claude Ryan, was tasked with finding a solution that kept the “French face” of Quebec without recourse to the notwithstanding clause.

I worked closely with Mr. Ryan and I wrote the proposal that squared that circle. It has remained unchallenged since. In essence, the idea was to keep large billboards French and allow for bilingual signs everywhere else. It was a solution that took into account the real concern for how Quebecers see themselves in the linguistic landscape. It worked.

AN AGE OLD-SPORT: ANGLO-BASHING

Against that backdrop, Francois Legault, the erstwhile separatist has decided to shore up his base by reverting to an age-old sport: Anglo-bashing.

Bill 96 is the most recent case of flagrantly illegal legislation attacking minority rights in La Belle Province. In this case, it’s minority language rights that are affected.

Coming on the heels of Bill 21, that openly discriminates against religious minorities in general (and Muslim women in particular) it has caused an uproar. Anglophone Quebecers have chosen to stay in their province. They are the most bilingual group in Canada. They have sent their kids to French school and to immersion classes and are simply tired of being the scapegoats for politically motivated language quarrels.

You have to be doing it on purpose to rile up the English-speaking community of Quebec to the point that they demonstrate in the streets by the thousands as they did last weekend.

But that's just it: Legault is doing it on purpose. His language cops will have the right to search and seize computers on business premises without a warrant. Legault has used the notwithstanding clause to remove the ability to challenge this fundamental breach of rights.

As highly respected commentator Yves Boisvert observed in La Presse last Sunday, it is abundantly clear that many provisions of Bill 96 will be thrown out by the Courts. Legault gets to play victim and he wins.

With Bill 96, Legault purports to unilaterally amend the Canadian constitution even as he removes equality of English and French before the courts. It’s clear as a bell in the 1982 Constitution that that would require a motion in the House of Commons and the Senate. Lametti knows this perfectly well but won’t defend the constitution here either.

The sections dealing with the language of justice are among the first that will be the object of legal challenges. In the past, the federal government always stood up for the rule of law.

Trudeau and Lametti are failing to uphold the constitution, their most fundamental obligation.

After a row between Legault’s justice minister and the Chief Justice of Quebec over the need to appoint bilingual judges in the province, a very strong legal decision sided with the Chief Justice. Legault is imperiling the entire legal system by doubling down and saying the Executive branch of government will now get to decide, not the judges. It is appalling and flies in the face of the most basic democratic rules governing the division of powers in Canadian society. The answer from Trudeau: crickets.

These are complex issues that require a subtle understanding of law and of the history of language rights in Canada. They are fundamentally related to the nature of the country and to how we move forward.

Thus far, Legault has managed to plead that Bill 21’s overt discrimination against religious minorities is really about ensuring that the government remains neutral on religion.

Telling a Muslim woman that she can’t teach if she wears a hijab, a Jewish man that he can’t become a Crown attorney if he wears a kippah or a Sikh that they can’t become a cop if they wear a turban, is not about separation of Church and state. It’s discrimination, pure and simple.

Legault also says that Bill 96 is just about promoting and protecting the French language. A goal the vast majority of Quebecers share.

Removing equality of English and French before the courts, putting up legal barriers to anglophones immigrants accessing health and social services in English (that also flies in the face of the Canada Health Act) and empowering language cops to search and seize business files without warrant and without Charter protection isn’t about promoting the French language. It’s unconstitutional, pure and simple.

Language has been weaponized, effectively, for political gain by Francois Legault who is jealously guarding the separatist vote he managed to hive off from the failing Parti Québécois in the last election.

Nothing new in an old warhorse such as Legault using religion and language to divide, the better to help his own political fortunes.

What is new - and shameful - is to have a national government in Ottawa too afraid to stand up for the rights of all Canadians.

Tom Mulcair was the leader of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada between 2012 and 2017.

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