‘A Real Head-Scratcher’: Experts Weigh In on Quebec’s Proposed Changes to Constitution

May 27, 2021 Updated: May 27, 2021

Quebec’s proposal to amend a section of Canada’s Constitution as part of the province’s changes to its language laws has been supported by all leaders of Canada’s major parties—much to the alarm of constitutional experts, who worry about implications for the federation itself.

On May 15, Quebec Premier Francois Legault announced that he had written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to inform him of Bill 96, Quebec’s “strongest action to protect our language, since the passage of Law 101 in 1977.” Bill 101 made French the official language of the government, courts, and workplaces in Quebec. The new legislation, Bill 96, would amend the Canadian Constitution to say that Quebec is a nation and that French is its official language.

Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages Mélanie Joly issued a statement supporting the bill, adding that “the protection and promotion of French is a priority for our government.”

Trudeau has said Quebec can unilaterally amend part of Canada’s Constitution, so long as it ensures “that the rest of the Constitution, including the sections that protect linguistic minorities, like anglophones in Quebec, continue to be respected.”

These developments concern Salim Mansur, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Western Ontario.

“Justin Trudeau has gone 180 degrees opposite to his father [former prime minister Pierre Trudeau], when his father stood up and fought against … a distinct society that would give Quebec a separate right to make laws for itself and the rest of Canada would operate on a separate situation,” Mansur said in an interview.

“Until the end of the last century, there was a definitive stand taken by the Canadian elite and the public that Canada has to be defended as a nation state, and there should be one law and one rule.”

Since then, Mansur said, “there has been step-by-step devolution of power to Quebec and not to the other provinces.”

I Dont Think Canadians Understand Fully

The bill has received the support of the Bloc Quebecois, Conservative, and NDP party leaders. This is concerning to Donald Savoie, Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the University of Moncton, who says he finds it “truly amazing” that there hasn’t been more of a fuss about it.

“If there was an outcry in the rest of Canada, I would suspect that party leaders would take note, but because it’s so blasé, nobody seems to be raising any concerns,” Savoie told The Epoch Times.

“I’m flabbergasted at the lack of interest in the rest of the country in this debate. … I don’t think Canadians understand fully.”

A lone protest came from Calgary MP Michelle Rempel Garner who tweeted, “So … by the same token, Alberta should be able to unilaterally amend Section 36 of the Constitution Act? I mean if we’re going to play this game let’s do it up right.”

Section 36 guarantees equal opportunity in economic development, something Savoie appreciates.

“I think the Alberta member of Parliament has a point,” he said, noting however that “it’s a tricky road. If provinces all dart their own way at some point, who’s going to speak for Canada?”

“My takeaway lesson is the rest of Canada is saying, we’ve had enough of this, we’re not interested, do whatever you want to do, leave us alone. That’s the sense that I’m getting from the rest of Canada, which was not the case 30 to 40 years ago,” Savoie added.

“If there’s another referendum, don’t expect Atlantic Canadians, don’t expect Western Canadians, to walk the streets of Montreal asking for Quebec to stay in the federation, unlike 25 years ago,” he said, referring to the Quebec independence referendum of 1995.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney welcomed the developments by pondering a provincial constitution of his own.

“Alberta should emulate Quebec in the way that it has so effectively defended its interests,” Kenney told the Calgary Herald. “We are plotting out a longer-term strategy to build a stronger, more resilient, and more autonomous Alberta within the Constitution.”

Retired judge Brian Giesbrecht, senior policy fellow for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (FCPP), called the bill “a real head-scratcher” and says he expects it to be challenged in court.

“Either the other provinces are going to launch some sort of case, a lawsuit, or else I’m wondering if concerned individuals aren’t going to do it,” Giesbrecht said in an interview.

In response to the legislation, Jay Hill, interim leader of the Maverick Party, wrote to Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe asking them to pass bills to declare English as the official language in their provinces as well as declare their provinces as nations.

FCPP founder and president Peter Holle said in an interview that it was no surprise that Hill seized on Bill 96.

“When I first heard of this, I said, ‘This is like pouring gasoline on the Western separation file.’ If I was in Wexit or whatever, this is gold,” he said.