Charest learned not to touch Bill 101

It's likely the Liberals will leave charter alone, unless they strengthen it

Loi 101 - 30e anniversaire - "satisfaction" anglaise

Don't touch Bill 101. That was the first rule for a Quebec Liberal leader that Jean Charest learned when he came over from Ottawa in 1998. And it's a rule he has followed ever since.

That might be about to change. At the Liberal Party youth convention two weeks ago, there were a couple of indications Charest's government might be about to modify the French Language Charter in ways yet unspecified.

The convention unanimously adopted a resolution to "update the French Language Charter as to aspects not known at the time of its adoption" 30 years ago. Neither the resolution nor the convention document containing it elaborated upon what these aspects might be. And the resolution was adopted without explanation or discussion.

Also, the language question will be considered by a party task force on identity and federalism, its chairman, Marc Tanguay, told the convention during a panel discussion. The task force is one of three that have started the process of drafting the Liberal platform for the next election.

Questioned by journalists, Tanguay wouldn't elaborate, either, on where the discussions on language might lead. But he would not exclude the possibility that the task force, which is to submit a preliminary report to a party general council meeting next month, would recommend amending Bill 101.

Charest himself was non-committal when asked whether it was time to review the French Language Charter. But his government's response to last week's court judgment on one aspect of the language law suggests if his government does amend Bill 101, it will be to strengthen it.

In the judgment, three judges of the Court of Appeal ruled 2-1 that Bill 104 violates the constitutional Charter of Rights. Bill 104 is the 2002 legislation amending the language law so a child could no longer obtain admission to publicly funded English schools for herself, her siblings and her future children by attending an unsubsidized English private school for a year.

Within hours of the judgment's publication, the government announced it would appeal to the Supreme Court.

The announcement was made by Education Minister Michelle Courchesne and Culture Minister Christine St-Pierre, but it was obviously the premier's decision, reached without consulting his whole cabinet or the Liberal caucus.

The government could justify its haste on the ground it also wants the judgment to be suspended before the new school year begins this week to prevent parents from taking immediate advantage of it. And Courchesne said the government is confident of its chances of having the judgment reversed in the Supreme Court.

But its haste also was politically motivated. Liberal support among francophones has been hovering at about 20 per cent. Charest is perceived to be weak in the defence of the interests of French-speaking Quebecers. Identity has become a burning issue in Quebec politics. And the 30th anniversary of the French Language Charter was just a few days away.

Under those circumstances, the government didn't want to appear even slightly hesitant to defend Bill 101. Indeed, even federalist commentators joined the unanimous condemnation of the court judgment in French Quebec.

Charest also might have wanted to avoid consulting his linguistically divided caucus. When the former Parti Québécois government proposed Bill 104 in 2002, it is said some English-speaking Liberal MNAs argued in caucus, with the support of a legal opinion, that the proposed legislation was unconstitutional. Some even threatened to vote against the bill, or at least abstain by being absent for the vote.

But the Liberal leadership made a deal with the PQ: It would vote for the legislation as a party provided there was no recorded division, or vote by individual MNAs by name, which might have exposed dissension in the Liberal caucus.

Now the Liberal dissidents of 2002, most of whom are still in the caucus, have a court judgment to back them up. Whether they'll do anything about it remains to be seen.

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