Fight for minority languages could spark new Quebec political party
When the CAQ government tabled Bill 96 last May, Colin Standish of Sherbrooke, Que., created a task force bringing together English, Indigenous and minority-language speakers to oppose the province’s plan to overhaul its language laws.
Nearly a year later, the law graduate, who once considered running for the federal Liberals, has formed a new group — the Exploratory Committee on Political Options — to see if his language-protest movement has enough support to launch a new provincial political party.
“Minority communities in Quebec, English speakers have been abandoned by our political elite — that includes the Liberal Party of Quebec,” Standish told CBC.
“Right now there really needs to be a new voice at the National Assembly.”
With the provincial election looming in October, Standish knows he doesn’t have much time. He and his team have formed a website to gauge how many people share their vision, and he says so far, support has been “overwhelming.” The group will decide whether it launches Quebec’s 22nd political party in the coming months.
“Certainly a focus on minority rights and language rights is critical to what we plan to do,” said Standish. “But to make sure, we’re putting together a constructive narrative that can involve all Quebecers, including francophones, Indigenous [people] and newcomers.”
Whether or not Standish decides to launch a new party, Quebec Liberal leader Dominique Anglade has taken notice.
“I think the party that can be trusted in terms of defending the rights of minorities is definitely the Liberal Party,” she said at the National Assembly Wednesday morning.
“You cannot take anything for granted, but at the same time we can be very confident. [We] feel that in all the steps that we’ve taken, we’ve done the work really diligently.”
Standish is concerned that Quebec’s Bill 96 and Canada’s Bill C-32, which would make changes to the Official Languages Act, will chip away at people’s rights, because both bills propose amendments to the Constitution.
He’s also “vehemently opposed” to Bill 21, Quebec’s ban on religious symbols for people in positions of authority, and against the CAQ’s replacement of school boards with service centres. Standish feels opposition parties haven’t done enough to push back against laws that are harmful to minority groups and in some cases have even helped push those policies through.
“The Liberal Party of Quebec, their only solution to Bill 21 is to not renew the notwithstanding clause in two years’ time,” he said. “That’s not sufficient for Quebecers to have their basic rights and freedoms respected.”
Equality Party 2.0?
This wouldn’t be the first time the language debate in Quebec has changed the political map in Quebec.
Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa lost a lot of support from Quebec’s anglophone and non-French speaking communities during his first term, when he passed Bill 22 in 1974, making French the province’s official language.
Two years later, many non-French speakers voiced their anger by parking their votes elsewhere, leading to a groundbreaking first victory for the Parti Québécois.
When Bourassa returned as premier in 1985, he faced another language crisis.
In 1988, he introduced Bill 178 to amend the province’s French Language Charter. He invoked the notwithstanding clause, to bypass a Supreme Court decision that voided parts of Bill 101 which required commercial signage be mainly in French.
The backlash was immediate, and less than a year later, the fledgling Equality Party borne of that anger had four MNAs sitting in the Quebec legislature, defending English rights.
Robert Libman, now a political columnist for the Montreal Gazette, co-founded the Equality Party and led the party until 1994. Today, he senses frustration reminiscent of the 1980s brewing because of Bill 96 and the CAQ’s approach to language reform.
“The original bill is bad enough,” he said in an interview with CBC, “but the amendments have just made it stronger and stronger. Many people in the community are becoming very discouraged, feeling more and more like political orphans.”
Libman, an architect, served as mayor of Côte Saint-Luc from 1998 to 2005 and made an unsuccessful bid for a seat with the federal Conservatives in 2015. He says while the anger of anglophones and non-French speakers could create a wave of support for a new party, it doesn’t guarantee political success.
“It’s certainly a monumental undertaking. They obviously have to have the political momentum behind them,” he said, adding that a lot will depend on where the Liberals land when it comes time to vote on the language reform bill.
“If they vote in favour of Bill 96, it will pave the way for another party to run in several ridings,” he said.
The lifespan of a protest party can be brief. The Equality Party was swept out of the National Assembly after one term and never won a seat again.
Standish argues that Quebec’s political landscape has shifted in Quebec. The governing CAQ is still relatively new itself and, while Premier François Legault has enjoyed a lot of popular support, voters may be ready for change.
“I’m confident that the majority of Quebecers — and I believe that includes the silent majority of francophones — want a new option at the table,” Standish said.