A united Canadian Francophonie: embracing diversity

With the theme Quebec in the Canadian Francophonie: The challenge of living together Benoît Pelletier opened La Journée du Savoir of Acfas -Alberta, on April 7th. About forty people gathered in the Grand Salon of Pavillon Lacerte to hear his opening lecture.

Étienne Alary - 19 April 2016

"Dear friends! I have a long-time friendship with Campus Saint-Jean and Alberta! And I believe that this particular friendship is the reason why I can call you dear friends," commented the lawyer and former provincial minister of Quebec.

In order to frame his talk, Benoît Pelletier first addressed the current issues concerning constitutional language rights. "For many of you it will be a reminder because these are things that you know very well," he said.

He talked about Article 133 of the 1867 Constitutional Act; an article which stipulates for bilingualism at both the federal and Quebec level with regards to language laws, judicial procedures and parliamentary debates. "At the time, the same constitutional constraints were not imposed in neither Ontario nor New Brunswick nor Nova Scotia ... So, when we speak about Article 133, for many people, we are talking about bilingualism in Ottawa and a form of bilingualism in Quebec," Benoît Pelletier states.

He also mentions the adoption in 1982 of Articles 16 to 23 of the Canadian Charter in Rights and Freedoms "We find that these articles incorporate some of the provisions of Article 133 of the 1867 Act at least at the federal level. They go even further since the Charter also addresses communication between the state and citizens," says Pelletier. "We also see that New Brunswick is subject to official bilingualism. Moreover, we can say right now that New Brunswick is constitutionally and officially the only bilingual province in Canada," he adds.

In 1993, the Atlantic province also sought a constitutional amendment that provides for equal official language status for the communities in the province.

According to Benoît Pelletier, from a linguistic point of view, we are living in a federal asymetry. "We also note that the equality of the official languages, other than in New Brunswick, applies only to the federal government. We also observe, a priori, that it is a theoretical equality. It affirms that the two languages ​​are equal in regard to their use and their legal basis, but in practice we know very well that, in practice, inequality exixts, "said Benoît Pelletier.

"To achieve real equality, some mechanisms must be put into place to support French-the weakened language, the threatened language, the language that in reality is not as used.'' continues the trained lawyer and professor at the University of Ottawa.

According to Benoît Pelletier, the Supreme Court of Canada has an important role to play here. "When we read the judgments passed by the Supreme Court of Canada, which often speak of how important it is that equality should not be theoretical, means that special measures should be put in place to support the French language, "he says.

However, he recalled that the Supreme Court has a very important room for a lot of flexibility, since it concerns linguistic rights resulting from political compromises. "Until now, the Supreme Court has chosen to uniformly interpret language rights for all provinces. It also decides on how to implement the language rights. (...) Of course, the Supreme Court has a lot of discretion in choosing its rules of interpretation. In particular, it established a broad principle, too broad in my opinion, regarding language rights in the Beaulac judgment," says the lawyer.

The Supreme Court itself decides the principles of interpretation that it will use to pronounce its judgment. "The judges of the Supreme Court interpret the constitution themselves. The Caron judgement is proof. Six judges share the same point of view and three others do not agree. It depends on the dominant philosophy of the time," he notes.

The case of Quebec

For Benoît Pelletier, the broad interpretation on language rights should not apply to Quebec. "I think we should have a more nuanced interpretation of obligations imposed on Quebec in constitutional issues, because the language of the majority in Quebec is also the language of the minority language in Canada- a minority that we constitute,'' he recalls.

Indeed, in Quebec too, it is about a language that is threatened and fragile. "According to me, the Supreme Court should take better account of the specific context of Quebec not only in the implementation of language rights, but also in its interpretation thereof. Thus, language rights could be interpreted more broadly by the Supreme Court. Asymmetry, as I mentioned before, should equally exist at the Supreme Court of Canada level not only in the implementation of language rights, but also in their interpretation. I would like to see the Supreme Court interpret the language rights more freely in provinces other than Quebec, than in Quebec," said Pelletier, recalling the specific mandate the Belle Province has to support French language.

Ultimately, "all Francophones have this in common: they share a language that is threatened, and weakened. We're all in the same boat, even if you live in Quebec. Since we, as Francophones, are in the same boat, I think we have to row in the same direction. "

In order to row in the same direction, we must have more dialogue and joint projects. "We must avoid legal confrontations like those imposing a uniform interpretation of Article 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms," says Pelletier.

From Law to politics...

As noted by Benoît Pelletier, if Canada has two official languages today, it is because at one time, it was recognized that there were two major host communities, Francophones and Anglophones. "You cannot have duality if the Francophones are divided. Canadian duality is possible only if that there is one unit of Francophones and Francophones are one," the professor at the University of Ottawa maintains.

In 2004, Benoît Pelletier, then a Minister, made a speech on the theme of Québec qui est de retour dans le giron de la francophonie canadienne, followed by the adoption(of a policy in 2006) by the Quebec government. ``Politically speaking, it was not obvious in Quebec. Many Quebecers feel it is unnecessary to maintain tight relations with the rest of the Canadian Francophonie. I believe instead that every effort should be made to strengthen these relations, and which takes absolutely nothing away from the fact that Quebecers form a nation," said the former minister.

Benoît Pelletier is adamant: Quebec must agree to be included in the concept of the Canadian Francophonie. "There is absolutely no reason why Quebec would be part of the international Francophonie, but not part of the Canadian Francophonie. It is completely contradictory. How can you say, I am part of the international Francophonie, but not part of the Canadian Francophonie. This is nonsense!" He says.

It is quite natural then that Quebec and Quebecers integrate with this great family, which is that of the Canadian Francophonie. "For me, the Canadian Francophonie has to declare itself willing to open wide its doors to all those who come from other countries, and who want to contribute to the development of the French language on this continent."

"If we claim to love a language, we would not want to limit it to Quebec. We would want it to shine bright, which leads us to look at what is happening elsewhere in Canada. And when you love a language, you would want as many people as possible to speak it and to contribute to its growth. The future of the French language and Francophone Canada will be determined by our ability to be this great host society, "states Benoît Pelletier.

The former minister expressed hope that the French language will be used across Canada. "For me, the magic of French language is that, it is spread by people who, regardless of their race and origin, will feel regardless of where they are that they are linked by the same language," he concludes.