CANADA

QUEBEC FIRE STORM

TENSIONS RISE, WITH BITTER DISPUTES OVER LANGUAGE AND CONTROVERSY IN A CASE OF ARSON

LISA VAN DUSEN February 6 1989
CANADA

QUEBEC FIRE STORM

TENSIONS RISE, WITH BITTER DISPUTES OVER LANGUAGE AND CONTROVERSY IN A CASE OF ARSON

LISA VAN DUSEN February 6 1989

QUEBEC FIRE STORM

TENSIONS RISE, WITH BITTER DISPUTES OVER LANGUAGE AND CONTROVERSY IN A CASE OF ARSON

CANADA

The reports appeared three weeks after the Dec. 30 arson that destroyed the Montreal offices of the English-rights lobby group Alliance Quebec. On Jan. 18, citing sources in the Montreal police department, the French-language television station Télé-Métropole said that Alliance Quebec president Royal Orr was himself the prime suspect in the case. Two days later, similar reports appeared in the daily Journal de Montreal. Reaction from many Frenchand English-speaking Quebecers was swift—and critical. Amid speculation that the source of the reports in question may have been police officers disgruntled by Orr’s previous criticism of the arson investigation—which did not begin until three days after the fire—many observers criticized the two media outlets. And the Orr controversy—amplified by news reports across the nation—was but one sign of the current turmoil in Quebec. Montreal Mayor Jean Doré, who has been critical of Alliance Quebec, said that he was “horrified by the sleaze” of the affair.

As Orr and Alliance Quebec prepared to launch lawsuits against the media outlets that carried the allegations against him, it remained clear that those tensions have increased dramatically. The spark came with the Dec. 15 Supreme Court of Canada decision striking down a section of Bill 101, the 1977 Quebec language law that required French-only public signs. The court—in a case initiated by Alliance Quebec—ruled that the requirement violated the constitutional free-expression provision in the Canadian Charter of g Rights and Freedoms. Premier §

Robert Bourassa’s response: Bill s 178, which prohibits the use of o English on outdoor signs while perf mitting limited use of the language u inside stores. Charred

Bourassa protected his attempt-

ed compromise against further constitutional challenge by invoking Section 33 of the charter. That section is the so-called notwithstanding clause in the 1982 national Constitution— which Quebec has never ratified—that enables a province to override the charter for up to five years. But Bill 178, which became law on Dec.

21, also prompted a backlash outside the province against the Meech Lake accord—which brings Quebec into the Constitution and requires the approval of all 10 provinces. In Manitoba, one of two provinces that have not yet passed the accord, Premier Gary Filmon rescinded his support for the agreement. And

in public hearings last week in New Brunswick—the other Meech holdout—angry women and native groups urged the province not to pass the agreement.

In Quebec, Bill 178 has infuriated both the anglophones who say that it is an infringement of their rights and those francophones who say that it does not go far enough in fostering use of the French language. Declared Nicole Boudreau, Montreal-chapter president of the Société St. Jean Baptiste, Quebec’s oldest nationalist organization—which favors the Frenchonly provisions of the original Bill 101: “Bill 178 is the seed of the violence. It has made anglophones and francophones antagonists. I

can’t tell you how much I deplore that.”

But despite the mounting tensions, last week Bourassa—completing a three-week European tour on Feb. 2 that included meetings with French President François Mitterrand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher— attempted to play down the importance of the

new language war. Indeed, he told a French TV interviewer that “the silent majority of Quebecers” is in favor of his new language law.

Still, a public opinion poll conducted by the Centre de recherche sur l’opinion publique (CROP) and released in Montreal’s daily La Presse on Jan. 22 reported that a majority of Quebecers—70 per cent of anglophones and 57 per cent of francophones—oppose Bill 178. And ever since the outbreak of the new language arguments in December, tensions have

been heightened by scattered violence, demonstrations and threats. Although few incidents have been as damaging as the Alliance Quebec fire, some anglophone shops and institutions have been the victims of vandalism. On Dec. 27, a fire bomb was thrown through the window of an English-language school in Quebec City. And an anonymous group has distributed stickers urging the smashing of windows displaying English signs.

For their part, many Quebec anglophones have responded to Bill 178 with increased militancy. In the Montreal suburb of Châteauguay, a Jan. 25 protest rally sponsored by the Châteauguay Valley English-speaking People’s Association attracted 600 people. Another group, the Committee 178, led by Westmount bookstore owner Stephen Nowell, is organizing public meetings in English-speaking enclaves across the province. Nowell, 36, publicly advocates civil disobedience.“By using the dubious but legal notwithstanding clause,” he declared, “Bourassa has made the entire judicial system in this province superfluous.”

Indeed, the dispute has been fuelled at times by insults and bluster. Quebec Industry and Commerce Minister Pierre MacDonald provoked ridicule after saying in a La Presse interview that members of the National Assembly had told him that they were fed up with going to the downtown Montreal Eaton store “and being served by a big, fat, damned English lady who can’t speak a word of French.” That remark prompted a mock search for the alleged woman in question by Montreal’s English-language Gazette newspaper—and the

formation of a “Fat, Damned English Ladies” protest group by prominent Montreal women.

Meanwhile, the Montreal police force is investigating the alleged leaks in the Orr case. For his part, the Alliance Quebec president told Maclean ’s that the allegations against him had resulted in a personal ordeal. Following the initial reports that he was a suspect in the fire, the Journal de Montreal—circulation 346,000— ran a story stating that Orr had not yet been arrested because of political pressure on the police investigators. At one point, said Orr, 32, a father of two, the rumors became so exaggerated that he was greeted, upon returning home from a visit to the doctor with his 18-month-old son, by reporters who had heard that he was about to be arrested by the Montreal police.

Meanwhile, the Quebec Press Council turned down

a request by the province’s

association of professional journalists to hold a formal inquiry into the media’s handling of the arson investigation. At the same time, the larger debate over Bill 178 shows little sign of abating. Last week, the Mouvement Quebec français, a hard-line nationalist organization that includes the Quebec Federation of Labor, said that on March 12 it intends to hold a demonstration in the streets of Montreal, demanding that the government withdraw the provisions in Bill 178 allowing for bilingual signs inside stores. And such sentiments have discouraged some English-speaking Quebecers—and prompted them to question their future in the province. Novelist Hugh MacLennan, 81, whose 1945 novel Two Solitudes chronicled the gulf between anglophones and francophones in the province, said last week: “I like the French people very well and I wish we could get along with them.” But, he added, “I just don’t know if they want us anymore.”

LISA VAN DUSEN