Robert Libman: Beware poking the nationalist bear in Quebec

Robert Libman: Beware poking the nationalist bear in Quebec

In both the federal and municipal campaigns, minority communities are left high and dry.

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Intimidation. Bullying. Ridicule. Some of the words that come to mind in describing how Quebec politicians and opinion leaders quickly attack anyone who dares to disagree with supposed Quebec collective opinion. This week, both the federal and municipal election campaigns clearly highlighted how parties will cower if they anger the Quebec nationalist bear and then quickly fall into line to curry favour. As usual, Quebec minorities are left high and dry.

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In a free and democratic society, people — including minorities — should be treated in a manner that is fair and equitable. This week, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, Premier François Legault and even Montreal mayoralty candidate Denis Coderre attacked the English Montreal School Board, with Legault calling it a “radical” organization.

So, what was the EMSB’s odious sin that merited the wrath of representatives from all three levels of government? The board is daring to challenge Bill 96 — the Legault government’s proposed revision of the French Language Charter — whose changes include the constitutional recognition of Quebec as a “nation,” with French as the only official and common language. The EMSB is calling on the federal government to refer the legislation to the Supreme Court to test its legality.

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The symbolism of Quebec as a nation has been recognized before in the House of Commons. Nation is defined as “a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture or language inhabiting a particular country or territory,” according to Oxford Languages. No one can really deny that Quebec is uniquely different from the rest of Canada with its majority language and culture, and many believe the acknowledgement is important. To many Quebec anglophones, however, because of the restrictive aspects of Quebec’s language laws, the concept reinforces the notion they are being relegated to second-class citizenry and creates confusion over whether it implies that Quebec is a country within a country.

However, this current debate is not about mere symbolic recognition of Quebec’s uniqueness. Bill 96 seeks to inscribe this concept of a Quebec nation — a concept of collective rights — in the Constitution, which could be severely detrimental to the legal protection of minority rights in Quebec.

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In the future, when issues are brought before the courts — for example, on minority language rights, educational rights or secularism — would judges be compelled to weigh individual Charter of Rights protections in the Constitution against the collective rights of the Quebec nation? In which direction would they tip the balance? Could this impact the anglophone community’s rights regarding control of our education system as contained in Section 23 of the Constitution? The notwithstanding clause cannot even apply to that section. Would Section 23 now become vulnerable? These are grey areas for interpretation and fundamental questions affecting English-language school boards. That’s why referring the matter to the Supreme Court is critical.

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Everyone seems to panic when nationalist pressure is brought to bear. In the federal election campaign, we’ve seen how all the parties are willing to sell out minority communities in exchange for the craved-for blessing of the Quebec nationalist elite. At the municipal level, Coderre showed weakness and insulted the anglophone community by revoking EMSB chairman Joe Ortona’s candidacy for his party.

Even Ortona and the EMSB recoiled in the face of nationalist blowback. Commissioners will be voting this weekend to change their position on Quebec nationhood. For years, this school board has been an embarrassment because of infighting under its former chairman. But they are supposed to stand up for the community whose interests they represent. It’s not the time for them to back down on such a fundamental issue.

If one doesn’t stand up to intimidation, bullying and ridicule, nothing will change.

Robert Libman is an architect and building planning consultant who has served as Equality Party leader and MNA, as mayor of Côte-St-Luc and as a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a Conservative candidate in the 2015 federal election.

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