A Quebec civil rights group that has lain dormant for years has suddenly started seeing an upsurge in membership since the election of the Coalition Avenir Québec government last fall, despite the fact it has not been recruiting.
Canadian Rights in Quebec (CRITIQ), formed in 2012 in response to proposed language legislation by the Parti Québécois that would have restricted access to English services, has increased by more than 400 members in the last months, organizers say. This despite the fact their website has been inactive for two years and the group has made no recent efforts to contact potential adherents.
“We know why: Bill 21 is really what’s initiating a lot of these people, who are reaching out and Googling ‘Canadian rights’ and ‘Quebec,’ ” said Gary Shapiro, founder and chairman of the organization. “That and the school board issues. Slowly and surely (the government) is making English disappear from the province.
“I was surprised but also saddened by the fact there are people clutching at anything to help them out. It’s a sad reality. It’s the slow downhill course.”
CRITIQ was created in response to Bill 14, legislation by the Parti Québécois to reform its Charter of the French Language. It describes itself as dedicated to protecting fundamental civil rights outlined under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, promoting the strength of the province’s English and French and multicultural heritage, and working to improve Montreal’s economic outlook. In 2013, it called on the Quebec government to amend Article 1 of the city charter to make Montreal a bilingual city.
Within a few months of its inception, the group said it had 10,000 members but then flatlined after the PQ fell to the Liberals in 2014. Interest also waned after Montreal was granted “Metropolitan Status” under the mayoralty of Denis Coderre, which appeared to respond to many of the group’s demands for special powers. In reality, Shapiro said, special status did little to improve the city’s economic outlook.
With the CAQ government forcing into legislation Bill 21, which restricts civil servants in a position of authority from wearing religious symbols, threatening to abolish school boards and unilaterally transferring English schools to French boards, Montreal’s economic prospects have fallen further still, Shapiro said.
The CAQ argues its law will ensure the religious neutrality of the state and will put to rest religious accommodation debates that have divided the province for more than a decade.
What first-rate individual is going to come to Montreal or Quebec?”
CRITIQ is lobbying for Montreal to be granted bilingual status so people can work and be educated in both English and French. It wants the city to have more say in how universities are run to counteract cuts to academic funding. It wants Old Montreal to become a tax-free tourism zone to keep the economy rolling year round.
“Because we are not attracting anyone, between our lack of bilingualism and our bans on people wearing head scarves. What first-rate individual is going to come to Montreal or Quebec? When your kids are forced to go to French schools and you can’t wear religious symbols, we are handcuffing ourselves. When you have the choice of coming to Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Boston, New York, why come to Montreal?”
Shapiro is hoping the increase in interest could generate enough funds (membership is free, but the organization can ask for donations) to be able to pay an executive director to take the reins. After several decades of efforts that have often proven fruitless, many of CRITIQ’s founding members are fatigued, Shapiro said, and looking for new candidates to take the reins. The Office Québécoise de la langue anglaise, another group he founded in 1996 to fight for anglophone rights, folded in 2017 after more than 30 years because, Shapiro said, of apathy on the part of the anglophone community.
“CRITIQ still exists, we maintain our website, but I’m getting tired,” he said.