June 13, 2022
MONTREAL – B’nai Brith Canada today made public its opposition to Bill 96, a law that it sees as detrimental to the interests of Quebec’s Jewish population.
The law was sanctioned June 1 and is now in force.
Jews today number some 90,000 in the province. Jews have lived in Quebec for centuries with the first congregation being established in 1768. But laws adopted by the Quebec National Assembly can send a negative message to the community. Montreal not so long ago was the most populous Jewish community in Canada with a peak Jewish population of 125,000 in 1971.
Montreal has seen its Jews departing for decades, driven out largely by the antagonism to minority rights by successive provincial governments. Montreal’s loss has been Toronto’s gain with Jews helping fuel that city’s spectacular growth in the last half century.
Bill 21, adopted in Quebec in 2019, purporting to institute religious neutrality in the public sphere by banning overt and conspicuous religious headwear including turbans, hijabs and kippahs, prevents observant Jews from being employed as civil servants, judges, doctors, nurses, police officers and teachers.
“No other jurisdiction in North America has a law like Bill 21 that so overtly discriminates against Jews and other religious minorities,” said Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada. “We fear that many segments of the Jewish community will be deprived of important services and that young people will conclude there is no future in this province for them.”
The Jewish community of today in Quebec is more diverse than in the past. Over 20% are francophone. The community is older than the average Canadian Jewish community and includes large segments with a mother tongue that is neither English nor French. Half the community is anglophone. B’nai Brith believes that all segments of the community will be adversely affected by Bill 96.
B’nai Brith shares many of the observations already made public by others as to why Bill 96 needs to be opposed. These arguments include:
· Any use of the notwithstanding clause to adopt Bill 96 would allow the province to override basic freedoms guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Rather than applying the clause to specific sections of the bill, the government has applied the clause to the entire bill, in an attempt to shield every aspect of the law from legal challenges based on the Charter.
· Unlike the Quebec Charter of Rights, the Canadian Charter cannot be modified by the act of a single legislature. Bill 96 attempts to exactly just that. The amending formula in the Canadian constitution suggests Bill 96 is illegal.
· Bill 96 does not focus on improving the quality of French in schools or supporting people to strengthen their French language skills, but by attacking English language rights.
· Bill 96 offers no explicit exemption for the health and social services networks obliging all sectors of Quebec’s civil administration from drivers’ licence bureaus to municipal-permits offices to hospitals to exclusively use French in written and oral communication with their clients, subject to exceptions for certain categories of people and circumstance and in certain emergencies.
· Bill 96 limits the right to communicate with government officials in English and restricts the use of English before the courts.
· Bill 96 gives powers to inspectors of the Office québécoise de la langue française that are not consistent with a democratic society and permit search and seizure without warrant or court oversight.
“The Government has not made a case of how this law truly strengthens the French language. It simply throws petty roadblocks up for hundreds of thousands of ordinary Quebecers by reducing their access to important daily services. It threatens good Samaritan civil servant who might try to help a senior by speaking a few words of English. It calls on citizens to make anonymous denunciations. That isn’t Canada and in fact is isn’t even a reflection of how Quebecers see themselves,” said Marvin Rotrand, B’nai Brith’s National Director of its League of Human Rights.
B’nai Brith today introduced new arguments to mobilize against the law. Many Quebec Jews today are immigrants. There is a significant community of elderly Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. These people are prevented by Bill 96 from accessing services in English or in their native tongue from their physicians and health care providers.
“How is French advanced by making it difficult for elderly people from Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and elsewhere to receive the best health care possible? Those we serve speak English as a second language, often haltingly,” asked Mark Groysberg, President of the United Community of Russian Speaking Jews of Quebec. “Is the French language advanced when a senior cannot make an informed decision? Why stop a doctor at the Jewish General Hospital from communicating to a patient in his or her native tongue? Does the Government want people to die?”
The United Community of Russian Speaking Jews of Quebec and B’nai Brith say Bill 96 ignores the modern reality of Quebec, in that large numbers of immigrants, whose mother languages are neither French nor English, are learning French and living in several languages.
B’nai Brith recently wrote to the Government of Quebec to alert them that Bill 96 will make it difficult for Jewish congregations to hire rabbis from outside Canada. Faced with a paucity of rabbis, Quebec synagogues are often obliged to recruit in the United States, the United Kingdom, or South Africa.
Bill 101 allowed children of rabbis from out of the country to obtain an exemption that allowed them to attend English language Jewish schools for three years. The exemption was renewable. Under Bill 96 the exemption is limited to two years and is not renewable making Quebec far less attractive to top-notch rabbis.
“Bill 96 combined with Bill 21 tells Jews that their civil rights are of little value in Quebec,” Mostyn said. “However, the Emancipation Act of 1832, otherwise known as the Hart Act, provided full political rights to Jews, and by extension, all minorities in Quebec. We are here today to say that no government can abrogate these rights, including by any future use of the Notwithstanding Clause.”