Canada’s justice minister said he would not rule out taking part in a legal challenge against Quebec’s newly adopted Bill 96, and he also listed a range of potential issues with the controversial language law.
Chief among those concerns for Justice Minister David Lametti is Quebec’s pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause, which essentially protects the bill from legal challenges based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
“I recall those debates when the Constitution came into force and the notwithstanding clause was meant to be the last word,” Lametti said when meeting reporters on Wednesday morning.
“It wasn’t meant to be the first word.”
The new law is large in scope, limiting the use of English in the courts and public services and imposing tougher language requirements on small businesses and municipalities.
It also caps the number of students who can attend English-language CEGEPs, which are junior colleges, and increases the number of French courses students at that level must take.
The Quebec government has used the notwithstanding clause for both Bill 96 and Bill 21, the religious symbols law which was passed nearly three years ago.
Lametti, who is the MP for the Montreal riding of LaSalle-Émard-Verdun said the use of the notwithstanding clause has the effect of “cutting off political debate” and judicial review of a law.
Bill 96 was passed into law on Tuesday, after weeks of protests over concerns it would infringe on the rights of anglophones, allophones and Indigenous communities.
The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government has insisted the new law would do no such thing, but many legal experts disagree.
Lametti said the federal government would monitor how Bill 96 is implemented before deciding whether it should intervene.
“We will keep all options on the table,” he said. “We won’t eliminate the possibility of joining court challenges where we feel it is necessary to protect the constitutional rights of Canadians.”
The justice minister said he was concerned about the law’s potential effects on access to justice in both French and English, Indigenous rights and health-care access.
He also singled out a clause in the law that gives sweeping powers to Quebec’s language office to investigate suspected businesses of not operating in the province’s official language.
“I’m a Quebecer. As a citizen of Quebec, I’m concerned about access to health care. I’m concerned about the ability to conduct search and seizure and that violates charter rights,” he said.