QUEBEC'S MOVE TO RESTRICT THE USE OF ENGLISH SIGNS PROVOKED A CRISIS ACROSS THE COUNTRY
BRUCE WALLACE,ROSS LAVERJanuary21989
WAR OVER WORDS
QUEBEC'S MOVE TO RESTRICT THE USE OF ENGLISH SIGNS PROVOKED A CRISIS ACROSS THE COUNTRY
The impassioned appeal for tolerance caused Quebec Liberal house leader Michel Gratton to remove his glasses and wipe tears from his eyes. Four desks away in Quebec’s ornate national assembly, Environment Minister Clifford Lincoln, Gratton’s friend and cabinet colleague, eloquently explained his reasons for opposing his party’s Bill 178, which overrides the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Quebec’s own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to prohibit the use of languages other than French on outdoor commercial signs. “In my belief, rights are rights are rights,” declared Lincoln, who represents the largely English-speaking riding of Nelligan in suburban Montreal. “There is no such thing as inside rights and outside rights, or rights for the East and rights for the West. ” Moments later, the popular and respected environment minister announced his resignation from Premier Robert Bourassa’s cabinet, the first of three anglophone ministers to step down in a widening controversy over the rights of Canada’s linguistic minorities.
In his 24-minute speech, Lincoln repeatedly cautioned Quebec politicians against using the latest language debate to reignite hostilities between Frenchand Englishspeaking Quebecers. But the implications of Bourassa’s awkward handling of the first major political crisis of his three-year-old government went far beyond Quebec’s borders. In Manitoba, Conservative Premier Gary Filmon cited Bourassa’s restrictions on anglophone rights to justify his surprise decision to withdraw support for the Meech Lake accord—Mulroney's prized constitutional amendment that would, among other things, recognize Quebec as a “distinct society.” To become law, the accord must be passed by the legislatures of all 10 provinces by June, 1990, but Manitoba and New Brunswick have not yet ratified it.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney faced divisions in his own 169-member caucus. On one side were those Quebec MPs who supported Bourassa’s decision to invoke Section 33 of the Canadian charter, the so-called notwithstanding provision that allows provinces to enforce laws that contravene the Constitution for periods of up to five years. On the other were MPs, mainly English-speakers, who condemned the French-only rule for outside signs as a restriction of individual rights. Mulroney himself had implored Bourassa not to invoke the controversial and rarely invoked clause of the 1982 federal charter. Critics say that the clause—inserted at the instigation of former premiers Peter Lougheed of Alberta and Allan Blakeney of Saskatchewan—renders the constitutional guarantees for minority language groups meaningless.
With Mulroney’s cherished Meech Lake accord in trouble, it appeared that a First Ministers’ conference on the Constitution could offer a way out of the impasse. “There is no crisis in Canada,” Mulroney insisted. But his advisers said privately that they would wait until tempers on all sides of the controversy cooled before trying to bring the premiers together. “The issue is just too sensitive right now,” said a Mulroney confidant. “Perhaps in a few months people will be in a mood to talk.” Indeed, in Quebec City last week, Bourassa illustrated the prevailing mood of intransigence by reaffirming his position that his government will not consider changes or additions to the accord until it is ratified.
But Bourassa’s actions signalled that he was more concerned with the political repercussions of the language controversy in Quebec than about the criticisms being levelled at his government from outside the province. Tensions in Quebec rose after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on Dec. 15 that Quebec’s language law, commonly known as Bill 101, violated freedom-of-expression guarantees in the Quebec charter of rights by banning the use of languages other than French on commercial signs. The court added that Bill 101 also infringed the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but that Quebec was entitled to override the charter by invoking the notwithstanding clause.
Bourassa moved quickly to fill the legal void. For months, the Quebec premier had told advisers that he favored relaxing Bill 101 to allow bilingual signs indoors—while maintaining the province’s 11-year-old requirement for French-only signs outside. As Bourassa saw it, the “inside-outside” solution, as it became known in the province, would enable him to mollify both Quebec nationalists—who fear assimilation by English-speaking North Americans—and the province’s 800,000 anglophones. But the court’s ruling, which held that Quebec had the right to ensure the “marked predominance” of the French language, did not make clear whether such a law was consistent with the Quebec and federal charters.
In the end, Bourassa decided not to risk a further court challenge. On Dec. 18, he announced that he intended to proceed with the inside-outside formula—and that to shield the legislation from legal action he would invoke Section 33. Said Bourassa: “I know we are asking an enormous concession from anglophones on a matter of principle.”
But in so doing, Bourassa may have seriously damaged his close relations with Mulroney. A senior adviser to Mulroney told Maclean ’s that the Prime Minister was “prepared to live” with Bourassa’s decision to require French-only signs outdoors. But, said the adviser, Mulroney could not accept any solution that involved the use of the constitutional override. One reason: a fear that such an act would spark an antiQuebec backlash in the rest of Canada, which might further erode support for the Meech Lake accord. And, in a telephone conversation with the premier only hours before Bourassa announced his decision, Mulroney himself urged Bourassa not to invoke the notwithstanding clause.
As well, senior aides to Bourassa told Maclean 'sthat federal officials advised them that, in their opinion, the province could implement the inside-outside policy without resorting to using Section 33. Said JeanClaude Rivest, a special adviser on constitutional matters to the Quebec premier: “They were telling us it could be done [without the override].” But, said house leader Gratton, “we could not find a single lawyer who agreed with that opinion. Every lawyer we consulted told us that unless we used the notwithstanding clause, we would be back in court by January.”
But although Bourassa described Bill 178 as a compromise between the rights of the English and French communities, activists in both camps condemned his solution. Leaders of Quebec’s anglophone community, which had reacted with cautious optimism to the Supreme Court ruling, were quick to declare that they had been betrayed by Bourassa’s decision. “The government has failed us completely,” said Royal Orr, president of Alliance Quebec, an English-rights group that financed the Supreme Court challenge to Bill 101 on behalf of five Montrealarea businesses. And Orr gloomily predicted that the provincial government’s decision could trigger an exodus of anglophones from Quebec similar to the one that followed the 1976 election of the Parti Québécois.
The prohibition on outdoor bilingual signs also failed to assuage hard-line Quebec nationalists. Instead, they reacted with outrage to the part of the bill legalizing indoor bilingual signs, which had been outlawed in the province since the passage of Bill 101 in 1977. And the opposition Parti Québécois, which perceived the language issue to be Bourassa’s most glaring political vulnerability, stepped up its attack on the government. Bourassa, said PQ house leader Guy Chevrette, had chosen “the most pernicious and hypocritical route to anglicization.” He added, “Social peace is finished.” Initially, at least, that prophesy was not borne out. There were isolated incidents of vandalism against Montreal-area stores that posted bilingual signs. And, on the day of the three resignations from Bourassa’s cabinet— Lincoln, Communications Minister Richard French and Solicitor General Herbert Marx— 1,000 students marched outside the national assembly, chanting in French, “Bourassa is scared.” But the demonstrations were far less intense and smaller than the massive protests that harassed Bourassa in 1974 following the passage of his previous language law, known as Bill 22. That law, which restricted the rights of people whose first language was neither French nor English to send their children to English-language schools, angered both anglophones and nationalists—who clearly felt that Bourassa had not gone far enough in enacting legislation that favored the French language.
In fact, last week, some of Bourassa’s advisers expressed the hope privately that the resignations of the three anglophone ministers would defuse nationalist anger and help to convince Quebec voters that anglophone resistance to Bill 178 provided a clear sign that the premier had done everything possible to protect the French language and culture. Indeed, last week, two Montreal-area anglophone Liberal backbenchers, Joan Dougherty and Harold Thüringer, also broke party ranks to vote against the legislation. As well, Bourassa and his ministers were quick to see the potential political benefits of being made the targets of criticisms from outside the province. Said one adviser to Bourassa: “Every time Gary Filmon opens his mouth to complain about what we are doing, our job is made easier.”
Last week, Bourassa’s advisers and ministers said that they had survived the worst of the political storm. And Bourassa said that he was counting on a “silent majority” of Quebecers to support his measures. Declared Education Minister Claude Ryan, one of those in cabinet who had pushed hardest for the use of the notwithstanding clause: “The centre of public opinion in Quebec has always supported using extra measures to protect the French language and culture.”
Still, Bourassa’s efforts to appease the bulk of Quebec voters may exact a price on another political front. The language tempest in Quebec reinforced New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna’s opposition to the Meech Lake accord. Last week, McKenna reiterated his demand that Mulroney and the other premiers amend Meech Lake to include stronger protections for minority language rights. But McKenna also criticized Filmon’s decision to withdraw the Manitoba government’s stated support for the deal, saying that it would be better to improve the agreement than to kill it. Said McKenna: “Meech Lake was born out of haste, and I would hate to see it die out of haste.”
In fact, Filmon’s retreat appeared to have been influenced, in part, by pressures from within his own province. The Winnipeg Free Press reported that at least half of his 24member caucus—including three cabinet ministers—had strong reservations about the accord. But even if the minority Tory government had voted solidly in favor of its ratification, the accord would almost certainly have been rejected by the provincial legislature because the opposition Liberals and New Democrats oppose it. Still, Filmon insisted that it was Quebec’s decision to restrict minority language rights—which, he said, “violate the spirit of the Meech Lake accord”—that had caused him to change his mind.
Equally worrisome for Bourassa was the prospect of strained relations with Mulroney. The two men have been friends and close allies since the late 1970s. More recently, their friendship has produced a rare period of political co-operation between Quebec and Ottawa, culminating in Bourassa’s strong backing of the Tories in the Nov. 21 election.
But by invoking the notwithstanding clause, Bourassa put Mulroney in an uncomfortable position. Mulroney, who has always opposed the existence of the notwithstanding clause and has defended French-speaking minorities in English Canada, had no option but to criticize Quebec for failing to safeguard the rights of anglophones in the new language bill. In the Commons, he told Opposition Leader John Turner, “I neither approve of it, nor do I believe that it meets the tests that the Supreme Court set.” In the process, however, Mulroney risked alienating Quebec voters. The controversy also appeared to drive a wedge between Mulroney and Secretary of State Lucien Bouchard, an outspoken Quebec nationalist whom Mulroney lured into federal politics earlier this year. Last week, Bouchard broke with Mulroney and endorsed the notwithstanding clause as an essential tool to “assure the survival of certain fundamental values of Quebec society.”
The anti-Quebec backlash in the rest of Canada may also make it politically difficult for Mulroney to dispense federal favors to Quebec. Among other things, Mulroney must decide soon whether to locate the planned federal space agency in Ottawa or Montreal. And the Prime Minister must also name a Quebecer to the Supreme Court to replace Mr. Justice Jean Beetz, who retired in November. Even though the Meech Lake accord has not been ratified, Mulroney has already agreed to operate by its principles—one of which requires that Supreme Court judges be selected from a list of nominees supplied by the provinces. But Mulroney is likely to encounter strong criticism from opponents of the accord should he allow Bourassa—who has just flouted a Supreme Court ruling—to have a say in the selection.
Within Quebec, some politicians expressed fears that the ongoing language controversy had badly tarnished the province’s image. Asked Quebec Energy Minister John Ciaccia, the only anglophone not to resign from Bourassa’s cabinet last week: “What is the spectacle we are creating of our society to the rest of Canada and to the world?” Across the country, politicians were also wondering whether the spirit of federal-provincial harmony present at the signing of the Meech Lake accord 18 months ago could be kept alive.
BRUCE WALLACE in Quebec City and ROSS LAVER in Ottawa with LISA VAN DUSEN in Montreal
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