Legault to Trudeau after Bill 96 criticism: 'Have a bit of respect for the majority of Quebecers'
The federal Liberals picked Wednesday, the day after Quebec's new language law was adopted, to lay out unusually blunt criticism not just on that bill but on an equally controversial one, Bill 21 on secularism.
Quebec politicians were not pleased, firing back with a slew of protests and even raising sovereignty as the solution.
"Mr. Trudeau, the message I have for him is, please have a bit of respect for the majority of Quebecers," said Premier François Legault.
Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who oversaw both bills, went a step further.
"That's not of their business. That's a Quebec matter, and right now, we're in front of the Court of Appeal," he said, referring to Bill 21 as its appeals wind through the court system.
"Let's just let the Court of Appeal rule about that. And the federal government have to respect the institution," he said, repeating that "that's none of their business -- that's Quebec business."
They were reacting to federal Justice Minister Devid Lametti making clear that Ottawa does, in fact, plan to make its case against Bill 21 at the Supreme Court level, presuming it makes it there.
But Lametti also didn't mince words about Bill 96, saying the government isn't promising to intervene in any way, but that personally and as minister, he has many concerns about it, from how it could change access to the justice system to how it could infringe on Indigenous people's rights.
The Parti Québécois said there's one obvious solution: Quebec independence.
"From many English Canadians' standpoint, those laws are the evidence of Quebec's intolerance, and they are unacceptable in Canada," said PQ leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon.
"So they're willing to do many things to deny us our right to self-determination."
He said that he believes not only Bills 21 and 96 are at risk but also Bill 101, the fundamental and long-established language law that made French the province's official language. It was passed in 1977 and has been updated since, including this year, with Bill 96.
A province's legislation shouldn't be so up for discussion outside its borders, argued PQ MNA Pascal Bérubé.
"Once a bill is vote[d] and sanctioned, it's done," he said. But "not anymore, not with the Government of Canada. With the secularism Bill 21, with Bill 96, we don't know if those bills are going to live."
That should be a wake-up call for all Quebecers, he said.
Trudeau himself didn't go into much detail this week on Bill 96, simply saying on Tuesday that he has "concerns" about it.
But four Liberal MPs published an open letter in the Montreal Gazette criticizing the bill and saying that while it will cause hardship for English speakers, it won't, in their view, accomplish anything for French speakers.
Legault said a majority of Quebecers support Bill 21 and also protecting the French language, saying this week's events have shown "a flagrant lack of respect from Justin Trudeau."
He's correct that there's majority support, though pollsters have pointed out that support for both bills tends to be concentrated among those who are least affected by both bills.
On Bill 96, for example, surveys show that two-thirds of French speakers support the bill, but that support is concentrated in specific groups: people over 55 and in the regions rather than the metropolitan areas, whereas about half the province's English speakers live in Montreal.
In his comments on Wednesday, Lametti said the federal government has a role in protecting all Canadians' constitutional rights, raising particular concerns about how the notwithstanding clause was used pre-emptively to pass both bills, shielding them from many court challenges.
"We will stay in our lane in the sense of, we will watch carefully areas of federal jurisdiction and how they are impacted," Lametti said.
"We will leave it to Quebecers to decide," he said, but "we won't eliminate the possibility of joining court challenges where we feel that it's necessary to protect the constitutional rights of Canadians."
He also pushed back on the idea of a clear Canadian-versus-Quebecer division on both bills.
"There are many Quebecers -- anglophone, francophone, Indigenous, non-Indigenous -- who have expressed serious concerns with various parts of this act," he said about Bill 96, also pointing to criticism from legal experts and health experts.
Last week, the province's College of Physicians, among others, firmly denounced the bill and promised to fight it.
"So am I any less a Quebecer because I oppose Bill 96?" asked Lametti. "No."
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