It's back. Like the seasonal flu, Quebec's nationalist politicians are talking about using the Notwithstanding Clause to suspend minority rights in the province. Over thirty years ago, that’s exactly what Liberal Robert Bourassa did to protect the commercial signage provisions of Bill 101 banning English from public view. Only after five long “notwithstanding” years did Claude Ryan give English people in Quebec his little illiberal Christmas lump of coal: a two-thirds French, one third English sign law backed up by tongue troopers with rulers.
Partly because we all glaze over whenever someone utters the word “constitution,” Canadians forget Ottawa could have done something about that. Hats off to Sir John A. He managed to include a “disallowance provision,” a federal veto over provincial laws. The Australians have one too, safely tucked away until one of their states tries to override Australia’s international human rights treaty obligations.
Wicked thought, politically incorrect: what if Canada used its power to veto Quebec’s invocation of the notwithstanding clause? Remember, the province has to pass a law to override key provisions of the Charter of Rights. Should Ottawa disallow it? Better yet, why not just disallow Premier Legault's rights violating language law from the get go? Would that be doing anything Australia wouldn’t do?
The proper conclusion is this. (Pace, asymmetrical federalists.) Canadians in Quebec still live in their own country. It's called Canada. The ultimate authority for defending minority rights is Ottawa's. Back in 1978, poet and constitutionalist F.R. Scott asked Pierre Trudeau to disallow Bill 101 because it violated everything Trudeau stood for on the bilingualism front. Trudeau refused. Can we expect better from his son? If not, why would the Anglo community keep voting for him?
former leader of The Equality Party, and president of The Special Committee for Canadian Unity.