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Quebec legislature adopts Bill 96 language law, Legault calls reform ‘moderate’

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Quebec Premier François Legault sought to reassure anglophones that his government’s language law reform, adopted on Tuesday, won’t prevent people from accessing health care in English.

The law, known as Bill 96, passed by a vote of 78-29, with the Opposition Liberals opposing it on the grounds that it goes too far and the Parti Québécois opposing it on the grounds that it is too timid.

Legault told reporters after the vote that the law introduced by his Coalition Avenir Québec party is “moderate,” striking a balance between the positions of the Liberals and the PQ. He accused critics of the law of “adding fuel to the fire” by saying health services could be threatened.

“We are committed to protecting your access to health care in English. It’s a historical promise that we will keep,” Legault said at the legislature. “I know of no linguistic minority that is better served in its own language than the English-speaking community in Quebec. We are proud of that, and we are also proud to be a francophone nation in North America, and it’s our duty to protect our common language.”

Legault said he believes most Quebecers support the law, and that while “a few people” want the province to become bilingual, the majority of anglophones accept that French is Quebec’s common language.

“We’re unique in North America, we speak French,” Legault said. “Montreal is a place where people have fun in French, but the services are (available) in English in schools, in hospitals.” Anglophones, he said, “have the best of both worlds.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said earlier in the day that he is concerned about the effect of the bill on Quebec’s English-speaking minority and that he was waiting to see the final version of the bill before saying whether the federal government would support a court challenge.

“We have concerns about the latest version of Bill 96,” Trudeau told reporters in Vancouver. “We continue to watch very, very carefully what final form it will take, and we’ll make our decisions based on what we see is the need to keep minorities protected across this country.”

The law proactively invokes the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Constitution to shield it from charter challenges.

Constitutional lawyer Julius Grey said a legal challenge to the law is already being planned.

“There would never be a law of this importance and, I would say, this inequity that would not be challenged,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

Among the elements that concern Grey is the powers it gives language law inspectors.

“It’s very peculiar to know that Quebec is a jurisdiction in which the police, in investigating a murder, must follow the charter and they can’t come in and grab your computer in your home, et cetera, but the Office de la langue française investigating the use of English, or another language, can come in and just grab,” he said.

Grey said an ongoing legal challenge to Quebec’s secularism law, which also proactively invoked the notwithstanding clause, could establish what elements of the language law can be contested.

Some elements of the bill are not covered by the notwithstanding clause and could be challenged regardless, Grey said, including elements that restrict the use of English in the courts and a change to the Canadian Constitution establishing that “Quebecers form a nation” and that French is Quebec’s official language.

Quebec’s second largest opposition party, Québec solidaire, voted in favour of the bill, despite expressing concerns about a provision that requires immigrants to communicate with the government in French after they’ve been in the province for at least six months.

Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade told reporters after the vote that her party opposed the bill for “many reasons,” including concerns it will limit access to health care in English, cap enrolment at English-language junior colleges and circumvent the provincial and federal rights charters through use of the notwithstanding clause.

The PQ had called for the bill to prevent most immigrants and francophones from attending English-language junior colleges.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on May 24, 2022.

— By Jacob Serebrin in Montreal, with files from Mia Rabson in Ottawa and Jocelyne Richer in Quebec City.

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COVID-19

Court martial planned for soldier who criticized vaccine mandate, led march to Ottawa

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By Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa

The Canadian soldier who recently led a protest march to Ottawa is now facing a court martial for having spoken out against the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements while wearing his uniform.

Warrant Officer James Topp was recently notified that he will be allowed to have his case heard in a military court instead of by his chain of command, according to the army reservist’s civilian lawyer.

Phillip Millar says the decision represents a second about-face after the military initially offered his client a court martial when he was charged in February, only to rescind the offer and send his case to Topp’s unit commanders.

“It’s hard to know what they’re doing, because I don’t think they really know what they’re doing,” said Millar. “But now they’re saying it’s a court martial.”

The decision raises the stakes for Topp, according to military law experts, as courts martial are allowed to impose heavier sentences against Armed Forces members than if they are tried by their chain of command in what is known as a summary trial.

Yet it also means he will be allowed to have legal representation at trial, which wouldn’t have necessarily been the case if he was tried by his commanding officer, while his trial will receive much more public attention.

“The stakes are obviously going to be increased in a public-relations context,” said retired lieutenant-colonel Rory Fowler, who is now a lawyer specializing in military law in Kingston, Ont.

The Department of National Defence did not respond to questions about whether Topp’s case was changed from a court martial to summary trial and back again.

Topp was charged in February with two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline after the army reservist appeared in uniform in two online videos criticizing vaccine requirements for military personnel and other federal employees.

Canadian Armed Forces members are severely restricted in the comments they can make while in uniform, particularly when it comes to criticizing government policies, in large part to protect the military from any perception of politicization.

Topp, who is now in the process of being released from the military, later led a months-long march from Vancouver that ended in Ottawa last week and was supported by many of the same organizers as this year’s “Freedom Convoy.”

He has since become a symbol of sorts for Canadians opposed to vaccines, vaccine mandates and perceived government overreach. Some Conservative MPs have also hitched their wagon to him, including leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre.

While Millar questioned the military’s back and forth with his client, and said he planned to question the way Topp’s charges were handled, he nonetheless welcomed the latest decision to allow a court martial.

That is because Topp will now be allowed to have a lawyer present during his trial, where Millar said he plans to call expert witnesses to question the need and efficacy of the military’s vaccine requirement.

The requirement imposed by chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre late last year remains in place even though a similar mandate for most other federal public servants has now been suspended.

“It opens the door for us to call witnesses about the decision to charge him,” Millar said. “It opens the door for us to call experts on whether or not there was any science behind the mandate.”

While the shift from a summary trial back to a court martial means Topp will be afforded an independent trial with legal representation, Fowler said it also means the army reservist faces potentially stiffer penalties if convicted.

Under a summary trial, commanding officers are largely restricted to handing down reprimands and fines. If he is found guilty by court martial, however, Topp faces the threat of dismissal from the military with disgrace and up to two years in prison.

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau said while there may be a number of reasons why the military opted to change the case from a summary trial back to a court martial, he believed the latter was the appropriate venue for hearing Topp’s case.

“It provides for a trial in an open court with all Charter legal guarantees,” Drapeau said in an email. “It also provides for the provision of free legal support to the member.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2022.

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COVID-19

Tamara Lich breached conditions by appearing with fellow convoy leader: Crown

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By Erika Ibrahim in Ottawa

The Crown is seeking to revoke bail for Tamara Lich, a leader of the “Freedom Convoy,” after she appeared alongside a fellow organizer in an alleged breach of her conditions.

Lich was charged in February with mischief, obstructing police, counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation for her role in the massive protest against COVID-19 restrictions that gridlocked downtown Ottawa for more than three weeks.

She was released the next month with a long list of conditions, including an order not to communicate with key convoy organizers except through counsel or in the presence of counsel. She was also banned from using all social media.

Crown prosecutor Moiz Karimjee told an Ottawa court on Tuesday that Lich breached one of her conditions by being seen with fellow protest leader Tom Marazzo at a recent gala, where she accepted an award for organizing the protest.

He argued that she should be detained.

Lich’s lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, said he will contest the revocation of Lich’s bail and seek her release with conditions.

Ottawa police Det. Chris Benson, who is the lead on Lich’s case, told the court he reviewed video of Lich and Marazzo appearing together at the awards gala.

Greenspon asked Benson if he knew of any other evidence that Lich and Marazzo communicated before or after the brief interaction in the video, which took place in “less than three seconds.”

He asked the detective if he was aware that some lawyers from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms were present, some of whom are acting as her lawyers in civil matters.

Benson said he believed a photograph showing Lich, Marazzo and others posing together at the award ceremony shows that she breached her conditions due to her physical closeness to him.

Lich monitored the hearing remotely from an Ontario detention centre, watching on video conference and listening in from a cellphone, her blond hair in a high bun.

Both Marazzo and Lich were key spokespeople of the winter convoy protest. Marazzo is also a leader of a group called Veterans 4 Freedom, which staged several rallies in Ottawa over the Canada Day weekend.

Police sought a Canada-wide arrest warrant for Lich for the alleged breach of her bail conditions and she was arrested last week in Medicine Hat, Alta., where she lives.

Benson said he oversaw Lich’s transport from Alberta to Ottawa after she was arrested.

Lich’s surety, whose identity is protected by a court-ordered publication ban, said they became aware of the photo of Lich and Marazzo a few days after the event, and immediately contacted Lich about it out of concern that a possible violation of bail conditions took place.

The surety explained that Lich assured them that legal counsel was present at the gala.

Greenspon pointed out the evidence brought against Lich to argue she broke the bail condition consists of a very brief congratulatory interaction between her and Marazzo, adding lawyers approved the photo and were just off-camera.

He argued Benson didn’t provide any evidence that contradicted the terms of the bail conditions.

“These actions were so minimal as to amount to not being prosecuted, let alone convicted,” he said.

The purpose of the bail condition was not to preclude the brief interaction and photo that took place, Greenspon said — rather, it was to prevent a similar event to the one that took place in Ottawa earlier this year. He argued the interactions in question do not risk reoffence.

The matter should have been brought to a judicial referral hearing or some other recourse rather than the Canada-wide warrant that has led to Lich being detained for nine days, he said, noting an email showing the Crown sought the expansion from an initial Ontario-wide warrant.

Justice of the Peace Paul Harris reserved his decision until the next court appearance on Friday.

Lich is charged for her role in the “Freedom Convoy” along with a co-accused, Chris Barber, who remains out on bail.

On Tuesday morning, Barber’s lawyer was granted a publication ban on court documents showing Barber’s cellphone communications, except for those with Lich.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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