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Official Languages Act: MPs reject Quebec's first 2 requested amendments

Bloc Quebecois MP Mario Beaulieu rises during Question Period, in Ottawa, Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld Bloc Quebecois MP Mario Beaulieu rises during Question Period, in Ottawa, Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Ottawa -

The Quebec government suffered a setback Tuesday when two amendments to Bill C-13, to modernize the federal Official Languages Act were rejected after heated debate in parliamentary committee.

Anthony Housefather, a Liberal MP from Montreal, took issue when the Bloc Québécois tabled an amendment aimed primarily at recognizing the language planning that Quebec has provided for in its Charter of the French Language.

"To mention the Charter of the French Language in this bill is essentially to say that we accept that only certain English-speaking Quebecers should be served in English: only those who have access to English schools," he said in English. "It's also to say we accept using the notwithstanding clause preemptively."

Housefather later proposed that any reference to the Charter of the French Language be removed from the bill, sponsored by his own party's official languages minister.

In response to concerns about being subject to provincial legislation, Conservative Bernard Généreux said his party isn't giving the Quebec government "carte blanche" since C-13 already provides for regular review of the law.

The New Democratic Party (NDP) once again held the deciding vote. In a very brief speech, MP Niki Ashton said she was concerned about "the order of priority between the two laws," namely the Official Languages Act and the Charter of the French Language as amended in June by Bill 96. She then voted against the Bloc amendment.

In a press scrum, Ashton tried to explain her decision by saying that the vote was on an aspect of the preamble to the law.

"It's all symbolic in the preamble," she said. "We didn't agree with the order of priority, but that doesn't mean we don't respect the Charter (of the French language) or the need to enforce the Charter."

Moments later, Bloc Québécois official languages critic Mario Beaulieu said he was surprised by the NDP vote.

Their eventual support for the application of the Charter of the French Language to businesses under federal jurisdiction — an amendment that is expected to pass thanks to a consensus by the opposition — implies "that they agree to a certain extent that Quebec must be the master of its linguistic development," Beaulieu said.


The second amendment that sowed the seeds of discord affirmed that French is the common language of Quebec, which the Liberals couldn't accept. Ashton and Ontario Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu both voted against it and did not explain their decisions.

"I don't see why this word is necessary. It's the official language, yes, French. But to add the word 'common' could imply obligations according to someone's interpretation in the future," pleaded Marc Garneau, the Liberal MP for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Westmount.

His colleague, MP Patricia Lattanzio of Saint-Léonard-Saint-Michel, then stated in English that this "new notion" is not defined "anywhere." However, an expert from the Department of Canadian Heritage told her that this term is well and truly defined in the Charter of the French Language.

"The common language means the language of convergence, the language that brings everyone together," said Beaulieu, the Bloc MP who tabled the amendment requested by the Quebec government, to reporters.

"If we want to have a coherent society, (we) have to be able to talk to each other at some point."

Beaulieu said the Charter of the French Language "does not take anything away from anglophones" and said he has the impression that those who object to it "do not accept (...) that Quebec society integrates immigrants."

The Standing Committee on Official Languages has scheduled up to six more meetings for clause-by-clause consideration of the bill.

One of the highlights of the bill's study is expected to come in the next few weeks when MPs vote on an amendment to make private companies under federal jurisdiction subject to the Charter of the French Language, as called for by the Quebec government.

The parties have already weighed in: the Liberals are against it, but the Conservatives, the Bloc and the NDP are in favour, which should allow the amendment to pass, barring a blowout.

Bill C-13 establishes a new right to work and be served in French in Quebec and in "regions with a strong francophone presence" in other provinces in private companies under federal jurisdiction, such as banks, airlines or railways.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Jan. 31, 2023. Top Stories


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