Justice Minister David Lametti is defending the federal government’s authority to challenge provincial laws that they believe infringe on the rights of Canadians, after Quebec said Ottawa’s reaction to Bills 21 and 96 lacked ‘respect.’
“We are just testing the limits of a piece of legislation, whether it infringes on the charter or whether it infringes on federal jurisdiction. We’ve done that since the beginning of Confederation. We’ll continue to do that. It’s a legitimate tool. It’s not insulting to anybody. It’s part of the process,” the Quebec-based MP told CTV’s Question Period.
The federal government has maintained that it’s up to Quebecers to take the lead on any appeals of both pieces of legislation, but have indicated they intend to intervene on Bill 21, should it end up at the Supreme Court of Canada.
Bill 21 came into effect in June 2019 and bans some civil servants, including teachers and police offers, from donning religious symbols while on the job. Bill 96 was adopted on May 24 and affirms that the only official and common language of Quebec is French. The central aim is to ensure that French is used exclusively in workplaces and municipalities.
Critics of the bills say neither represents an inclusive Quebec and argue they infringe on certain provisions within the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Lametti’s comments come days after Quebec Premier Francois Legault called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to “please have a bit of respect for the majority of Quebecers” that he says support the controversial secularism and language laws.
His Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette added that neither bill is Ottawa’s business, but rather “a Quebec matter.”
Lametti called the reaction “absurd.”
“There are challenges to federal jurisdiction by the provinces all the time, there are challenges to provincial jurisdiction by the federal government all the time,” he said, noting that Legault took Ottawa to court over the carbon tax scheme.
NEEDED REVIEW OF NOTWITHSTANDING CLAUSE
In introducing both Bill 21 and Bill 96, the Quebec government pre-emptively invoked the notwithstanding clause, which allows provincial legislatures to temporarily override sections of the charter while shielding them from many court challenges.
Lametti said he doesn’t believe the clause should be used in this way.
“The notwithstanding clause was meant to be used as the last word in a dialogue between legislatures and courts giving the last word to legislatures. It’s not meant to be the first word. When it’s the first word, it pre-empts not just political debate, but also judicial review of the actual provision and it really guts the structure of the charter,” he said.
The minister added that, more generally, it’s time the Supreme Court reviews it.
“For the time being, there is a Supreme Court ruling that says it can be used in that fashion. I would say that it’s time that we review that Supreme Court ruling, we ask the Supreme Court to take another look at it,” he said.