Jewish lawyers’ group charges that Quebec language bill threatens civil rights

The official photo of the 2021-22 executive and board of the Lord Reading Law Society. (Credit:

A Jewish lawyers’ association warns that Bill 96, the Quebec government’s sweeping reforms to strengthen the French language, threatens the civil rights of non-francophones

“Seldom has proposed legislation impacted access to justice, equality before the law, and the most fundamental principles underpinning our legal system to the extent that Bill 96 does,” the Lord Reading Law Society stated on Sept. 17 in its presentation to public hearings held by the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN).

Lord Reading contends that the bill “provides a state-sanctioned legal and protected basis for discrimination against those whose common language is other than French.”

It believes the law would institutionalize “a form of secret denunciations of neighbours or colleagues that has no place in a free and democratic society” simply because they have an insufficient command of French.

QCGN, an anglophone coalition, organized its own hearings because it felt too few community-based groups, especially those critical of the bill, were invited to appear before the parliamentary consultation on the bill taking place Sept. 21-Oct. 7.

Lord Reading had hoped to go before that committee.

With its changes to a host of provincial legislation and effective unilateral amendment of the Canadian Constitution, the bill would “create a hierarchy with respect to fundamental rights, making language rights paramount while severely restricting human rights protections set out in both the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” Lord Reading argues.

An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Quebec was tabled in May.

The Society is critical in particular of the enhanced powers granted government language inspectors and hindrances to accessing the judicial system, post-secondary education, and possibly health care in English.

The bill would allow inspectors to carry out, without warrant or judicial review, searches of establishments suspected of not complying with the law. They could seize such items as computers and cell phones, even in a lawyer’s office, Lord Reading says.

“This would fly in the face of the basic human right to be protected from unlawful search and seizure that applies in all liberal democracies,” the brief states.

The government says such investigations would only be carried out when a complaint has been lodged with the Office québécois de la langue française.

Lord Reading finds this disturbing because citizens would be “permitted and even induced to anonymously report on their neighbours.”

Regarding the judicial system, Lord Reading cites a number of obstacles for English-speakers, namely, judges hearing anglophones’ cases, whether criminal or civil, not necessarily having to understand English; the requirement that any pleading by a corporation in English must have a “certified French translation” in order to be filed in court; and all legal contracts having to be drawn up in French, with few exceptions.

Frank Schlesinger, chair of Lord Reading’s human rights committee, stressed that the proposed law should be of grave concern to all Quebecers, regardless of their language or politics.

“Quebecers of all stripes must be made aware that their rights are under threat,” he said. “This includes members of Quebec’s linguistic majority who may be inclined to support Bill 96 simply because it purports to protect the French language,” he said. “There are better ways to protect our common language than to run roughshod over the basic democratic rights of all Quebecers.”

Founded in 1948, Lord Reading bills itself as “the collective voice of Jewish jurists in Quebec.”

Another Jewish lawyer’s comments referencing the Nazi secret police earlier at the hearings drew the ire of Premier François Legault.

Anne-France Goldwater, who was not representing Lord Reading, criticized what she sees as the bill’s encouragement of snitching. “I think our tax dollars should go more to education than to creating a new form of – please don’t get mad at me, I’m a Jew, it’s the language that comes to mind – we don’t need a new Gestapo where we’re starting to fink on each other.”

Legault retorted, “When she compares Bill 96 to the Nazi regime I find it terribly insulting for the Jewish community. I hope the Jewish community will take her to task…It’s completely absurd to say things like this.”

Goldwater reaffirmed her opinion, adding that she lost relatives in the Holocaust. She challenged MNA Christopher Skeete, the premier’s point person on relations with anglophones, to a debate on radio, which has not taken place.

The Centre for Jewish and Israel Affairs tweeted: “Everyone is free to oppose a Quebec bill, but to compare Bill 96 to the Gestapo constitutes a trivialization of Nazi crimes and is an insult to Quebec democracy.”

Another analogy with the Nazi era was made at the QCGN hearings on the same day Lord Reading was there.

Clarence Bayne, vice-president of the Quebec Board of Black Educators, said according to the Montreal Gazette, “Some argue this is very reminiscent of the practices of Nazism used in the early stages before the destruction of Jews in Germany,” referring to politicians who discredit those who question them as being offensive to Quebecers.