Bloc leader says he wants legal opinion on prospect of U.S. trade sanctions over language law

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet says he will ask for a legal opinion on whether the U.S. government has any legal grounds to impose trade sanctions on Canada in response to Quebec's controversial language law Bill 96.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Blanchet said records that show the U.S. Trade Representative's office has discussed possible sanctions don't correspond with what the U.S. State Department has told him during trips to Washington — that while they don't necessarily like Bill 96, American businesses respect Canadian and Quebec law.

"It worries me," Blanchet said. "Before I get carried away publicly, I will ask for a well-documented legal opinion."

Blanchet suggested a lobby group has influenced the U.S. government.

"I understand that there is perhaps a lobby that has been exercised," he said. "I have asked for a legal opinion on the tenor of the trade agreements to see if there really substance for a penalty imposed by the United States on such a basis, which would be a dangerous precedent for the protection of French in Quebec."

Blanchet's comments come after CBC News obtained documents under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act that show U.S government officials have discussed the possibility of trade sanctions against Canada in response to Bill 96.

The documents also reveal that U.S. government officials are being told that the implementation of Bill 96 could result in fewer products being shipped to Canada — not just to Quebec.

The documents show that officials from the U.S. Trade Representative's office have debated whether the legislation — which includes provisions that could affect things like commercial signs, trademarks and labels on products — contravenes trade agreements between Canada and the United States.

Officials have discussed, for example, whether the restrictions in Bill 96 could constitute a technical barrier to trade, a breach of trade-related intellectual property rights or a violation of Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974.

Behind closed doors, the International Trademarks Association industry group has urged the U.S. government to impose trade sanctions on Canada, arguing Bill 96 affects the ability of U.S. companies to sell their products in Quebec.

Other USTR officials, however, questioned whether the provisions of Bill 96 would qualify for sanctions.

The documents, which cover the period from November 2022 to late January 2024, don't say whether USTR officials have reached a conclusion one way or another. The USTR is still engaging with industry groups and companies concerned about Bill 96 and monitoring the situation.

Public Services and Procurement Minister Jean-Yves Duclos  responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Public Services and Procurement Minister Jean-Yves Duclos says the need to protect the French language in Quebec must be balanced against the need to protect the economy. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Speaking to reporters on the way out of a cabinet meeting Tuesday, Public Services and Procurement Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said it's important to both defend the French language and protect the economy.

"Obviously, we also need to eat bread, we need to pay for our groceries at the end of the month. So, economic preoccupations are important for people in the Quebec region," he said. "We are a region that depends a lot on the capacity to export our products and attract foreign investment to Canada and Quebec in particular."

Justice Minister Arif Virani said he is following Bill 96 closely, particularly its use of the notwithstanding clause.

Asked about the concerns expressed by American officials, Virani punted the question to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland.

"But if there is an impact on the Canadian economy, it is certain that it worries us in general terms," he said.