Feds ready to get involved in Quebec's Bill 21, are closely watching Bill 96
Federal Justice Minister David Lametti says the federal government is prepared to get involved in two controversial Quebec bills, including the language law passed Tuesday, especially if the bills reach the Supreme Court.
"We have, as we have said from the start, concerns about the preemptive use of the notwithstanding clause," Lametti told press on Wednesday morning, a day after Bill 96 passed in the Quebec legislature using that clause.
Bill 96, a language law that brings huge change to many sectors of Quebec, was the second bill under Quebec's current government to pass into law using the clause, which is meant to shield legislation pre-emptively from constitutional challenges.
The other was Bill 21, Quebec's bill on secularism, which was passed in 2019 and bans many public workers, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols while on the job.
"We said from the start that we wanted to leave room for Quebecers before the courts, but once it comes before the Supreme Court of Canada, it is by default a national issue. We will be there to deliver our arguments," Lametti said.
Bill 21 is getting close to that stage, having already reached Quebec's Court of Appeal.
"Once the Court of Appeal has ruled, we're going to the Supreme Court to give our opinion on it,” said Lametti.
As for Bill 96, it's less clear so far whether federal authorities will want to weigh in. That will depend partly on how the new law is put into action, said Lametti.
"We will, as I said, monitor the implementation," he said, speaking in French. "There are possibilities of implementing the law without affecting federal jurisdiction."
In other words, the law could be enforced in a way that doesn't violate constitutionally protected rights, he suggested.
But he said he's already concerned about some aspects of Bill 96.
"Obviously as a minister, I have fears... will it affect access to justice?" he said. "According to Article 133 of the constitution, people in Quebec have the right to go to court in English or in French."
There are many other things to watch as well, he said.
"As a citizen, and... an elected official, I have concerns about access to health care, about the issue of immigration, about how to impose certain obligations on immigrants," he said, as well as the rights of Indigenous people.
Bill 96 extends strict French-language rules for businesses, requires immigrants six months after they arrive in the province to communicate with the government in French only, and caps enrolment at English-language junior colleges, while also creating change in the justice system and, some predict, in health care.
Listen on CJAD 800 Radio: THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT IS GETTING READY TO CHALLENGE BILL 21 AND BILL 96
NOTWITHSTANDING CLAUSE MEANT AS LAST RESORT, SAYS LAMETTI
Aside from those areas of implementation, Lametti added that "obviously the question of the notwithstanding clause is essential" to the debate over Bill 96 as well.
He criticized the use of that clause in general, saying it cuts short crucial debate and an important dialogue between the courts and legislature, and suggesting François Legault's government is misusing the clause.
"I remember the debates at that time," Lametti said, referring to when the notwithstanding clause was included in Canadian law.
"It was supposed to be the last word in a dialogue between the courts and the legislature, and not the first word."
Lametti is not only the justice minister but Canada's attorney general.
This week, prominent Quebec constitutional lawyer Julius Grey laid out a plan to challenge Bill 96, saying he's putting together the legal case with a committee of Quebec lawyers.
He criticized the federal government as "spineless" on the language law, saying his group is prepared to take the matter to the United Nations if the notwithstanding clause makes it impossible to carry out an effective appeal in Canada.
--With files from The Canadian Press.