Tom Mulcair: Language back on frontburner
Published Monday, November 8, 2021 11:11AM EST Last Updated Monday, November 8, 2021 11:28AM EST
SAINT-SAUVEUR, QUEBEC -- With a couple of weeks to go in the municipal election campaign in Quebec City, Bruno Marchand was a distant second in the polling.
Speaking to a journalist about international missions on behalf of Quebec’s Capital, he mentioned that he thought that his principal opponent’s lack of bilingualism could be a handicap for the City. That provoked a lively debate that influenced the campaign. As voting day approached, Marchand’s numbers started to improve rapidly.
On Sunday night, against all odds (and after a victory speech by that opponent, Marie-Josee Savard) Bruno Marchand was elected mayor of Quebec City.
Language issues have always been a part of the Canadian political fabric. Mostly dormant in recent years, the issue of bilingualism, or lack of it, just came roaring back into the news as the president of Air Canada stumbled into a quagmire of his own making.
Michael Rousseau is clearly an exceptional business leader. His track record speaks for itself…in English only.
Despite his family name and 14 years in a French city, he can’t speak a word. When it was revealed that the president of Air Canada was planning to give a unilingual English speech to the Chamber of commerce, people were quite concerned. The pundits and analysts I work with in French television and radio were all primed to watch this thing go "kaboom"!
Premier Francois Legault’s office had sent a clear message that this was a bad idea as had the Official Language Commissioner. The otherwise superb communications team at Air Canada must’ve also added their own voices to the chorus of concern.
Rousseau didn’t see the problem and went ahead with the speech. He also chose to hold a press scrum after the speech and left little doubt that he really, really can’t understand a word of French. He also showed that as the head of an officially bilingual airline, he was completely tone deaf to the problem.
No doubt wishing he had listened to all that good counsel, he promptly apologized for his gaffe that produced a language kerfuffle the likes of which we hadn’t experienced for years.
All this is against the backdrop of a much decried "decline of French" in Montréal. This is a subject for cool heads and sobre analysis. We’ve been getting anything but. Legault’s language (and justice) minister, Simon Jolin-Barrette, is currently piloting new, and stricter, language legislation (Bill 96) through the Quebec National Assembly.
It removes constitutional rights to equality of English and French before the courts and is manifestly unconstitutional. It doesn’t matter. Quebec claims it can amend the B.N.A. Act (Constitution Act of 1867) unilaterally. The Quebec Bar Association sounded the alarm in legislative committee, to no avail.
Fearing a fight with Legault, in the ramp-up to the recent Federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh all went into "duck-and-cover" mode and said they endorsed Bill 96.
At the same time, Trudeau’s then-language minister Melanie Joly introduced her own language proposal, Bill 32. It is sweeping legislation whose main goal is to shore up the status of French in Canada.
It seeks to clearly recognize that French is the minority language in Canada and that it needs special protection. The feds would start imposing language rules on federally regulated businesses operating in Quebec and in francophone areas.
Airlines such as Porter and WestJet would soon be required to be able to provide services in French on their flights, an obligation that currently exists only for Air Canada. The backlash against Rousseau will be predictably pointed to as an object lesson in "give an inch, take a yard" and it will be fascinating to see whether Trudeau decides he has better things to do than go forward with Bill 32.
Problem for those federally regulated businesses is that Legault plans to subject them to his own language rules and Minister Jolin-Barrette feels emboldened, and justified, in the wake of the Rousseau debacle. Here again, the constitutionality is more than sketchy but, hey, Legault has his own election coming next Fall and a good fistfight with the feds is always a crowd-pleaser.
The English-speaking community of Quebec has been rattled by both Legault’s Bill 96 and Trudeau’s Bill 32. A unilingual English speech like Rousseau’s was especially upsetting for anglophone leaders who for decades have sought to build bridges to the majority of Quebecers and protect their community’s institutions.
As the new minority Liberal government settles in, Trudeau will be caught between the R.o.C. and a Quebec hard place. He should remember that his first obligation is to defend the Constitution.
Tom Mulcair was the former leader of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada between 2012 and 2017.