Quebec Anglos are alone in fight against Ottawa’s language bill: Liberal MP Anthony Housefather

MP Anthony Housefather at a virtual townhall, March 1, 2023.

Montreal-area Liberal MP Anthony Housefather says he would not vote for his government’s proposed amendment to the Official Languages Act if Quebec’s controversial new language legislation remains a part of it.

Housefather, who represents Mount Royal which has a large Jewish population, said the federal Bill C-13 references Bill 96 as a model for the protection and promotion of the French language.

He said this would be another blow to the English-speaking minority in Quebec which almost unanimously views Bill 96 as an infringement on its rights.

Housefather calls the provincial law “egregious… It’s mean-spiritedness, nothing else,” and it is “ridiculous” for Ottawa to incorporate Bill 96 into federal legislation. Passed last June, the Quebec law strengthens the French language charter, while reducing government services available in English.

Housefather was the guest speaker at a virtual townhall meeting organized by B’nai Brith Canada, which opposes much of Bill 96. The federal Bill C-13, which was introduced one year ago, amends the Official Languages Act to enhance the use of French in federally regulated private businesses.

Having received second reading in Parliament, the bill is now under study by the Standing Committee on Official Languages.

Housefather said this first major amendment to the Official Languages Act in 30 years would end a situation where French outside Quebec and English in Quebec were generally treated equally by the federal government.

Housefather stressed that both the Bloc Québécois and Conservative committee members have proposed amendments to the bill that he believes would make things even worse for Quebec anglophones. Some of these, which give Quebec more power over how federal services are delivered in the province, have been supported as well by the New Democratic Party representative on the committee, Niki Ashton, he said.

‘’The Conservatives’ position is essentially the same as the Bloc’s… to court nationalist votes in Quebec. It’s awful,” said Housefather.

If the bill returns to the House of Commons with the opposition parties’ amendments maintained, Housefather said, “I could not possibly vote for it.”

Housefather and fellow Montreal Liberal MP Patricia Lattanzio submitted their own amendments aimed at protecting the interests of the English minority in Quebec.

Marvin Rotrand, the Montreal-based national director of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights, described the possible ramifications of Bill C-13 as “chilling” and said the situation is especially worrisome because Canadians outside Quebec, whether English- or French-speaking, are not adversely affected, nor are, of course, Quebec francophones, and therefore do not care.

Housefather concurred. “It’s a real problem. English Quebecers do not have any allies now; they are very much alone in this fight… It’s incredibly dangerous (because) people are unaware of what goes on in committee.”

Housefather added that he has been “vilified” in the French media for having spoken out against Bill 96 being integrated into federal law.

He noted that Bill 96 limits those Quebecers who can receive government services in English to those who are eligible for English schooling in the province, that is, people whose parents or grandparents received the majority of their primary education in English in the province or the rest of Canada.

This excludes many of the up to 1.2 million Quebecers who identify English as their main language, he said.

The government promises health care is the exception, but Housefather said this is far from clear and may not be feasible 10 or 20 years from now with health care professionals no longer required to know English.

The Coalition Avenir Québec invoked the notwithstanding clause to pre-empt any challenge to the law’s constitutionality, a move Housefather deplores.

English Quebecers may not be happy with the Liberals’ proposed official languages amendments but they “would be 500 times more dissatisfied” if they were aware of what the opposition parties want, said Housefather.

It is possible that the amendments adopted by the standing committee could be reversed in the House of Commons, said Housefather, but another party would have to support the Liberals and, at this point, he is doubtful the NDP will do that.

In addition to members of the Jewish community, representatives of the Filipino, Black, South Asian and other communities participated in the national videoconference.

Also on the call was Burlington, Ont., deputy mayor Rory Nisan, who is vice-president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). He said he is “appalled” by the issues Housefather is shedding light on, and intends to bring them up with the FCM.

Joe Ortona, chair of the English Montreal School Board, which is currently contesting Bill 96 in court, said he will send letters to all MPs and senators expressing the board’s concerns about Bill C-13.