Canada is complicated, though most of the world probably doesn’t see that. Our politics is never simple, and decisons made one year can reverberate for generations. Is it like that where you live?
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a new political problem, thanks in large part to his father, who was Prime Minister from 1968-84. Pierre Trudeau (I suspect acting on pressure from within his Liberal Party) made a decision in 1977 that has come back to haunt his son today, a decison that could cost Justin a win in the next federal election.
In simple terms, Canada is a linguistic duality, English and French. The reality is more complicated, but we’ll stick with those two.
Back in 1976 Quenecers elected a separatist government in their provincial election. The Parti Quebecois, dedicated to making Quebec an independent country, soon introduced legislation to strengthen and increase the use of French in the province.
Many said the new law wasn’t constitutional, and the federal government should have disallowed it. But it didn’t. The federal Liberal Party needed the votes of Quebecers to stay in power. It wasn’t going to antagonize those living in the province by challenging a popular provincial government.
Which means that for almost 50 years the government of Quebec has instituted policies that discriminate against those who aren’t Francophone, especially immigrants. In their desire to increase the use of French they have taken away choice in such matters as education. Children of immigrants may not be educated in English.
Pierre Trudeau didn’t like the policy, but, counting the votes needed to stay in power, didn’t stand up for what is right. As a supposed champion of individual rights, the father of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, caved to political considerations.
This week the government of Quebec introduced a new language law, also supposedly designed to increase the use of French in the province. Apparently the current law isn’t sufficient – the use of French is declining. I guess it is tough to force people to speak a language when they prefer a different one.
At first glance this legislation is obviously unconstitutional. Which leaves Justin Trudeau with a dilemma.
The new law would extend the Quebec government’s power over language to, among other things, include federal workplaces. A provincial government does not have the right to dictate working conditions in federal workplaces – but this one wants to.
It also wants the Constituition amended to add a clause guaranteeing Quebec’s status and language rights. Which is something of a joke to political insiders who remember that Quebec refused to sign the 1982 Constitution, and still has not formally ratified it.
Which doesn’t stop the province from using a clause that allows it to pass unconstitutional leglislation that cannot be challenged for five years. This new law already has that provision included. However, even in that case I doubt the so-called “notwitshtanding clause” can be used to take rights away from the federal government.
If Pierre Trudeau had stood up to the Parti Quebecos government in 1977 when the first language law was introduced, Justin Trudeau wouldn’t have a political problem today. Once again in Canada a prime minister named Trudeau needs Quebec support to stay in office.
Once again there is an option – he could disallow the legislation. The federal government has the power to do that with any provincial law.
Given Justin Trudeau’s track record, I can’t see him taking a stand and denouncing this new law, let alone disallowing it. There is an election coming soon, and he doesn’t want to do anything that might cost him votes in Quebec.
I’d say that Canadians long for a leader who will do the right thing, but I don’t know if that is true anymore. We have failed to hold our leaders to account when they don’t live up to their own ideals let alone any national ones. We have rewarded leaders for ethical breaches that in private life would see a person fired from their job.
It is almost as if we have given up on concepts like fairness and equality, or even in seeing the law applied as written. I am sure the government of Quebec is sure that is the case. They don’t expect the federal government to do anything about such discriminatory legislation.
Are they right? Are political considerations more important than doing what is right? I would hope not, but in Canada in 2021, I am afraid that they are.