Joly treading on dangerous ground with white paper on official languages

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Quebecers will band together to promote French and governments need to have their back. But not at the expense of francophones in the rest of Canada.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on February 22, 2021.

Economic Development and Official Languages Minister Melanie Joly’s white paper on official languages has not even been released and already the opposition parties are lining up against it.

In a speech in November, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole accused the Liberals of refusing “to protect French in Quebec because they did not want to harm linguistic minorities in other parts of the country.”

O’Toole went on to claim media pundits were acting in bad faith by comparing the anglophone minority in Quebec to francophones outside Quebec. He claimed that was a “false equivalency.”

To that end, the Conservative party under his leadership is vowing to apply Quebec’s Bill 101 to federally regulated businesses in that province.

On the face of it, that does not seem like a big deal.

But by adopting a provincial language law, the federal government would be throwing millions of francophones outside Quebec under the bus.

If one province is successful in ensuring that its language laws can also override federal jurisdiction, it won’t be long before anti-French campaigns in other parts of the country close down schools and services that are currently funded, in part, by federal language policy and laws.

Joly is treading on very dangerous ground with this white paper, because all opposition parties are lining up to turn it into an anti-French attack by the Laurentian Liberals on la belle province.

The moribund Bloc is dying for an opportunity to drive a wedge into the relationship between francophones and anglophones in the country.

A language war is the only way to convince nationalist Quebecers that supporting the sovereigntists in an election is not a lost cause.

The Tories are trying to re-establish themselves as the party of the Union Nationale and the old Progressive Conservatives, when federal election victories were always dependent on support from Quebec nationalists.

As for the New Democratic Party, it has already thrown its lot in with the separatists. The Sherbrooke Declaration, which was a fairly calculated move by Tom Mulcair and Jack Layton to attract Quebecers, would basically give Canada away with a referendum vote of a simple majority.

Jagmeet Singh has already endorsed the declaration, and the last campaign solidified his attachment to separation, when his Quebec members moved away from their support for social democracy and focussed instead on sovereignty and the right to separate.

Even with that carrot, the party bled votes in Quebec, but when it comes to language laws, the Liberals will be alone in their support for a federal language policy that could apply across the country.

Already the Quebec National Assembly has moved unanimously to support the position of the government that all Quebecers and all services, should be governed by provincial language laws only.

The newly minted provincial Liberal leader followed in the footsteps of her predecessors by falling in line on Bill 101 without even bothering to suggest a single amendment.

That is not surprising as it is common knowledge in Quebec political circles that most provincial Liberals are actually federal Tories. That is why former Quebec premier Jean Charest moved with ease between the two parties at the federal and provincial level.

But if the white paper content and rollout is not properly managed, the Liberals could back themselves into a corner in strategically vote-rich Quebec.

If Quebecers feel attacked, they will immediately band together and vote en masse. And that capacity to vote collectively could change the outcome of the election.

That is why Quebec-born Erin O’Toole was out early on his party’s position on Bill 101. He knows this could play very well in certain parts of the province that he desperately needs to form government.

The white paper may succeed in lowering the temperature, which is what the Liberals need to kill a divisive language issue on the eve of an election.

Joly has excellent communication skills in both official languages, but as she discovered on the Netflix file, the devil is in the details.

You can rest assured the Prime Minister’s Office will be combing through details of the document, looking for potential pitfalls.

The Liberals have already taken a beating in Quebec on the decision to grandfather possession of military assault rifles and defer to municipalities on the decision to ban handguns.

That won’t be too damaging because the other parties do not want a legislative gun battle.

But language is a different story.

Quebecers will band together to promote French and governments need to have their back. But not at the expense of francophones in the rest of Canada.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.