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Lawyer challenging Bill 96 asks Quebec to suspend language law over 'uncertainty, confusion' it's creating

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Quebec's controversial new language law should be temporarily suspended because it's causing so much "uncertainty, confusion and tension" among the population, says a lawyer who is challenging the law in court.

Julius Grey, a Montreal-based expert in constitutional law, wrote an open letter to the government on Thursday requesting that the Act Respecting French, the Official and Common language of Quebec, commonly referred to as Bill 96, be suspended to "repair the obvious deficiencies in the law as adopted."

The legislation was adopted in June and parts of it have already been suspended by the court. Last month, in the first defeat of Bill 96, Quebec Superior Court Justice Chantal Corriveau ruled sections of the bill that required corporations to pay a certified translator to produce French versions of legal documents violated the rights of English-speaking organizations to access justice.

The judge ordered that the two articles be stayed until the case can be heard on its merits, likely in November. The English Montreal School Board has also launched its own legal challenge in court

Grey said in his letter that his clients are requesting that he file a legal challenge against Bill 96 to ask the court whether Bill 96 is valid under the law as it stands.

"Given the context of the adoption of this law — in a time of pandemic and without consultation with affected groups — it is important for Quebec to have a discussion on its content," Grey wrote in the letter addressed to Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister responsible for the French language. 

"Quebecers do not want to suffer and bear the costs of an inevitable years-long court debate about the validity of a law that affects many areas of their lives. We hope you will understand that in order to have a reasoned discussion, it is necessary to verify the validity of the law before implementing it. By all accounts, Bill 96 has a significant impact on the lives of Quebecers and many sectors of our society and therefore deserves special attention."

Julius Grey is a constitutional lawyer based in Montreal. (CTV News)

Grey raised several legal questions surrounding the new law that he argues haven't been given proper constitutional consideration before it was passed in the National Assembly, including questions about the government's use of the notwithstanding clause, access to justice for English-speaking litigants, and privacy considerations surrounding the search-and-seizure powers of the province's language watchdog, the Office québécois de la langue française.

MORE THAN 150 CEOs WANT BILL 96 TO BE SUSPENDED

Grey said he stands behind a group of more than 150 CEOs and business executives who have also signed another open letter that called for Bill 96 to be suspended. The business leaders wrote that they fear the law will push people who may be interested in working in Quebec to look elsewhere when the province is in the middle of a labour shortage.

The new law now applies certain provisions of the language charter onto companies with 25 or more employees, when previously, the bar was set at businesses with 50 or more staff. Bill 96 also requires new immigrants — whom businesses are keen to recruit — to learn French and to receive government services exclusively in French in six months, which some experts say is unrealistic.

The authors of the letter say this will only hurt the Quebec economy at a particularly fragile time.

"If the best and brightest innovators, technologists, and business builders gravitate to Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Halifax instead of Montreal and Quebec City, it will do permanent damage to our province’s economic prosperity. This is already happening, but it’s not too late to change course," said the letter, spearheaded by the Council of Canadian Innovators.

Some of the signatories of the letter include Louis Tetu, CEO of Quebec City-based software company Coveo, which employs more than 700 people; Eric Boyko, CEO of Stingray, which owns several music television channels and more than 100 radio stations; and Antoine Amiel, CEO of glasses retailer New Look.

'THEY WILL HAVE TIME TO ADJUST': LEGAULT

Legault, who is seeking another term as premier during the Quebec election, defended the bill this week as a "balanced" law that is crucial to protect the use of French in North America. When asked about the concerns raised by several business leaders in the province, he said there will be a three-year transition period for them.

"They'll have the time to adjust," he said Wednesday. "It's important to have the two objectives: yes, create wealth, but yes, also protect French."

Meanwhile, the fallout from the passing of Bill 96 continues this week as contracts for home sales in Quebec must be in French.

The new rule came into effect Thursday, which means it applies to all Quebecers, even in circumstances where English-speaking sellers are working with English-speaking buyers.

Lorena Lopez Gonzalez, a Montreal-based notary, said the new rule will hurt anglophones with more costs and more delays, with prices of translation ranging from $400 to $1,200.

It's important for clients to know what they're agreeing to, but now it might come at a cost, she said. 

"They're not buying a pair of jeans," she said. "We are talking about contracts of hundreds of thousands of dollars."

The updated language law also means birth and death certificates must be written in French as well. 

With files from The Canadian Press

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