By Pearl Eliadis, Special to The Gazette April 18, 2013

MONTREAL – Last Friday, the Quebec Bar Association testified at legislative hearings in Quebec City on Bill 14, which proposes to amend several laws, including the French Language Charter, and impose new restrictions on (mainly) anglophone rights.

When I first wrote about Bill 14 last fall (Opinion, Dec. 11, “Bill 14 chips away at English minority rights”), I highlighted the bill’s proposed change in definition of “ethnic minorities” to the nebulous “cultural communities.” Other writers have discussed this as well. The proposed new term, in my view, is worrisome because it serves as prologue to a litany of substantive rights violations in the bill.

The Bar found more than a dozen of these, in a number of areas. Among them:

Jobs: Let’s say your employer hired you because she needs well-educated employees who speak two or more languages. After all, you work in the Montreal area, so you probably serve clients of different linguistic backgrounds. Under Bill 14, your employer would be obliged to “subsequently review such needs periodically” to justify not only your job, but also the job of every other employee whose skills in a language other than French were seen as an asset when they were hired. It does not matter how big or small the company is. If requiring a language other than French cannot be justified to the satisfaction of the language bureaucrats, your job or your promotion would be jeopardized. This applies even if you are fluent in French.

Public services: Bill 14 proposes to require communication with the provincial government in French, in order to obtain a licence, authorization, assistance, indemnity or any other benefit. Applications, then, would have to be made in French. All supporting documents would have to be in French, too. Otherwise, the government would insist on translating it, at your expense. This provision would create a disadvantage mainly for English speakers. If Bill 14 is passed, forget about English versions of driver’s licence forms, income-tax forms and other tax-related information, not to mention English versions of government websites, which are already inadequate. Then there is Bill 14’s proposed new passive right for government officials to be addressed solely in French. The corollary is that public servants would be entitled to refuse to even acknowledge anything said to them in English.

Health and social services: Under Bill 14, workers in health and social services would be able to demand full translation of files into French. Translation costs would be borne by the English-language health-care system. But what if there were a real emergency, and your file had to be transferred from the English-speaking system to a specialist in the French-speaking system? The English version of Bill 14 says that the person authorized to receive your documents may require “a quick rundown of their content” in French — and this, in addition to the full translation of the file. The French version of the bill can be interpreted as saying only a “quick rundown” would be required. The translation contradictions are not helpful. To be sure, there are perfectly valid reasons for wanting unilingual workers to understand what they are reading. However, Bill 14’s proposals would impose financial burdens on an already-beleaguered health system. (I am betting there was no consultation with the English system on this point).

Your child’s schooling: Let’s say you move. Or you want to transfer your child to another English school, for whatever reason. Education officials under Bill 14 would, in these cases, be entitled to disregard your child’s years of schooling to date if this schooling in English were obtained through “trickery,” deception or a “temporary artificial situation.” These terms are all undefined, and interpretation would be left to the discretion of bureaucrats.

These are but a few examples of what awaits us if Bill 14 is passed. The bill promises years of litigation and legal instability.

Who will pay? For starters, the taxpayer.

The Quebec Bar Association’s brief, which highlights the legally problematic aspects of Bill 14, should be reassuring to anyone who believes that the rule of law should prevail regardless of one’s mother tongue or home language.

Protecting French is a legitimate political objective. But Bill 14 goes too far, and risks becoming a launch pad for multiple legal challenges that will further damage Quebec’s reputation.

Pearl Eliadis is a Montreal human-rights lawyer. She was part of the legal advisory team for the African Canadian Legal Clinic of Toronto, an intervenor in the Whatcott case. She teaches civil liberties at McGill University.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette