2016 is ending and we can collectively agree it’s been a shitty year. Cops are spying on journalists, our Prime Minister has turned his back on the young people who elected him, comedians are being punished for their jokes, and icons from Prince to Bowie to Muhammad Ali to Carrie Fisher have left us. In the legal world it’s been an ongoing ugly parade and with the year FINALLY coming to an end, it’s time for a recap of some of the major legal issues affecting us this past year.

Syrian Refugee Crisis

The ongoing crisis in Aleppo has led to tons of refugees fleeing Syria. Unlike the US where debates regarding the refugee crisis were fraught with concerns about terrorism and an emphasis on keeping victims of Aleppo out, the Trudeau government took the moral high ground and pledged to welcome twenty-five thousand Syrian refugees. The Canadian government ended up going above and beyond this pledge and have thus far taken in thirty-eight thousand seven hundred and thirteen Syrian refugees.

Trans-Pacific Partnership

On February 3, 2016, Federal Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement on Canada’s behalf. Canada’s participation in the treaty was negotiated by the Harper government before its colossal defeat by the Liberals in 2015. Whether Parliament ratifies the agreement thus legally binding Canada remains to be seen.

Uber Crisis

Montreal taxi protest (photo Chris Zacchia)

Quebec cities were rife with cab drivers protesting Uber, a car service that is not bound by the ridiculous and expensive rules that must be obeyed by taxi drivers and company owners that specify everything from pricing and car specs to what the driver wears. In September 2016 Uber made a deal with the Quebec government which included Uber acquiring 300 taxi permits and obliging drivers to get a class 4C license and insurance. With the cab industry in Montreal already flooded, it remains to be seen whether this tentative deal will create peace between taxi companies and Uber.

Panama Papers

In April 2016 the decryption of the Panama Papers revealed the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca to have helped many of the world’s wealthiest people hide their assets from governments. Those named included terrorists, CEOs, politicians, and athletes. Canadian tycoon and political wannabe Kevin O’Leary is dismissive of the papers, possibly because he too is hiding wealth from Canadian taxpayers for his own benefit.

Anti-Vaxxers and Naturopathic Remedies

David and Collet Stephan were convicted of failing to provide the necessaries of life for failing to get their son medical attention for bacterial meningitis. As the Stephans are anti-vaxxers distrustful of modern medicine, their 19-month old boy Ezekiel was instead treated with echinacea, garlic, onions, hot peppers and horseradish. By the time he was brought to a hospital it was too late and the boy died. David Stephan has since been sentenced to 4 months in prison while Collet to 3 months of house arrest. They have been ordered to bring their kids to a medical doctor once a year and a nurse every 3 months.


Quebec Culture Minister Hélène David announced modifications to Quebec language laws that would force businesses with trademarked non-French names to add French to their signs. Though the proposal is clearly in retaliation for the government’s legal defeat against Best Buy in 2014, it remains to be seen whether the changes will go through in a province exhausted and fed up with language and cultural debates.

Ghomeshi Verdict

In May 2016 former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi signed a peace bond to settle a sexual assault trial. Though for many this is a slap on the wrist, his former victim Kathryn Borel celebrated the bond as a public acknowledgment of Ghomeshi’s guilt. The 12 month long bond guarantees Ghomeshi will go to prison should he violate its terms and does not limit the prosecution from going after him for other sexual assaults.

Mike Ward

Mike Ward (photo Cem Ertekin)

In July 2016 Montreal Comedian Mike Ward was ordered to pay $42 000 to a disabled kid and his mother for making fun of him in one of his jokes. The verdict, which Ward has sworn to appeal, has turned the Quebec Human Rights Commission from a means of social justice to one of censorship. No one has questioned why the kid went after Ward and not the bullies who used his joke to hurt him, but it’s likely due to Ward’s celebrity status and wealth.

Pitbull Ban

Following the death of a Pointe-Aux-Trembles woman after she was mauled by a dog, the City of Montreal has adopted a ban on dangerous breeds. The ban is hugely unpopular and has resulted in protests, the latest being the SPCA’s refusal to take in dogs following the Quebec Court of Appeal’s reinstatement of the ban after the Superior Court overturned it.

STM Fines

On September 7, 2016 the Municipal Court of Montreal ruled that fines given by STM rent-a-cops to people unable to produce their transfer is unconstitutional. The STM has vowed to appeal the decision.

Judge Robin Camp

In November 2016, Judge Robin Camp was recommended for removal from the bench by the Canadian Judicial Council following an inquiry into his conduct during a rape trial. Though the judge promised to reform, his behavior demonstrated such contempt for victims of sexual assault the Council ruled no amount of sensitivity training would repair his damage to the judiciary’s reputation.

Seafood and Civil Liability

In May 2016 Simon-Pierre Canuel ingested salmon at a bistro in Sherbrooke sending him into anaphylactic shock. He is now suing the restaurant and waiters for $415,000 though his negligence regarding his food allergy and rumours that he has tried to scam restaurants in the past make it unlikely he will get the full amount.

This past year has been full of legal debates that are as fascinating as they are numerous and outrageous. For every dispute brought before courts and councils we come closer to what we all strive for: a just society.

In 2017, let’s aim for just that.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Quebec politicians desiring of success must be in want of the support of the French speaking majority. There is no clearer demonstration of this than the Couillard government’s intention to modify Quebec’s existing language laws.

On May 3rd of this year, Culture Minister Hélène David announced modifications to Quebec language laws that would force businesses with trademarked non-French names to add French language elements to their signs. This would include making Starbucks add the word café to its name and having Home Depot add matériaux de construction to theirs.

The proposed modification seems to serve two purposes.

First, it’s clearly an attempt to pacify the more extreme members of the Quebec population – the ones who voted for the Parti Québecois despite the whole xenophobia scandal related to the now defunct Secular Charter. It’s a move that seems to be unnecessary. The reason the Liberals demolished the PQ in 2014 is the people’s revulsion with former premier Pauline Marois’ push of legislation much of the province considered racist and xenophobic.

The second purpose of the proposal is to punish businesses like Best Buy for the legal case they won in 2014, a victory confirmed on appeal in 2015.

In 2014 Best Buy, Old Navy and other retailers with trademarked English names took the Quebec government to court to find out if they were obligated to add generic French terms to their signage. The Quebec Attorney General said they did. The courts disagreed and in 2014 the Court of Quebec ruled in favor of Best Buy, a decision confirmed a year later by the Superior Court of Quebec.

The government does not like to lose in the courts, for such a loss is a failure in the public eye. Fortunately for governments, there is a way to save face by enacting legislation that reinforces the government’s position in the case they lost.

The legislation that came into question in 2014 is the Quebec Charter of French Language. Enacted in the seventies when tensions between Francophones and Anglophones were at their peak, its purpose was to establish and ensure the primacy of the French language in Quebec by establishing it as the language of government, commerce, and law.

The French Charter created strict rules regarding the language of business and education and established the Office québécois de la langue française (OLFQ) to enforce them. According to article 58 of the French Charter public signs, posters, and commercial advertising must be in French. Penalties for disobeying the law can be anything from fines of six hundred to six thousand dollars for a natural person and fifteen hundred to twenty thousand dollars for businesses.

For every subsequent offense the fine is doubled, and on request from prosecutors the courts can even make an offender pay an additional fine equal to any profits gained from committing the offense. If a person incites, assists, or encourages someone else to commit an offense, they are also considered to have committed the violation.

Best Buy won their case because the law and applicable regulations allow for exceptions in cases where the sign contains a legally recognized trade-marked name even if the name isn’t in French. The new law would do away with that exception except in cases where the trademarked name is an actual person’s name like McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s.

The French Charter currently allows the Quebec government to grant exceptions to the rules to certain businesses that apply for them. All other businesses would have three years to comply with the new law.

Having said all that, let’s clarify what the OLFQ’s current powers actually are.

The Office québécois de la langue française’s primary purpose is to ensure that French is the language of work, communication and commerce in Quebec. It can take any appropriate measures to promote the French language which includes inspections and inquiries for the purpose of enforcing the French Charter.

It can conduct these inquiries of its own volition or following receipt of a written complaint. Though complaints to OLFQ are widely believed to be petty and mean spirited, the theory ignores the rules regarding how the Office has to handle complaints and widely exaggerates its powers.

The OLFQ is legally obligated to refuse any complaints it considers “manifestly unfounded or in bad faith.” It can refuse to act if it feels that the complainant already has appropriate recourse or if the circumstances surrounding the complaint don’t justify its intervention. If the Office refuses to pursue the matter it has to justify the refusal to the complainant.

When the OLFQ conducts an inquiry, even a discovered violation won’t always result in legal action. Only the Attorney General of Quebec and the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions or someone else authorized by the Quebec government can take the case further and these always have some discretion as to whether or not to pursue a case. Though cases that go to court are often won by the Quebec government, databases of legal decisions don’t take into account all the times OLFQ and Attorney General of Quebec have backed down.

In 2001 the OLFQ went after L. Berson & Fils, a monument company on St Laurent Boulevard that had been serving Montreal’s Jewish community since 1922. The sign has Hebrew lettering of almost equal size to the French wording. When the government started harassing the owners about their signage the overwhelming response was one of outrage, their actions widely perceived as anti-Semitic. The Quebec government quickly backed down.

The proposed tweaks to Quebec’s language laws are unnecessary, which makes you wonder why they’re being raised at all. With the Couillard government under heat for its austerity measures – measures that have cut much needed hospital beds and closed seniors’ homes, the only answer is the one of divide and conquer. After all, a population busy fighting over language is one too busy to throw eggs and tomatoes at the government.