Column

Challenging Quebec's language law

Next month, the PQ will consider recommendations that it impose further restrictions on the use of English

Diane Francis March 25 1996
Column

Challenging Quebec's language law

Next month, the PQ will consider recommendations that it impose further restrictions on the use of English

Diane Francis March 25 1996

Challenging Quebec's language law

Column

Next month, the PQ will consider recommendations that it impose further restrictions on the use of English

Diane Francis

Most Canadians have no idea how unjust Quebec’s language laws are. We do know that the first Parti Québécois government and its discriminatory legislation led to the biggest migration in Canadian history as hundreds of thousands of anglophones, and their enterprises, left Quebec after the separatists were

lected in 1976. This, in turn, started the economic deterioration Montreal and the province. Even so, in April the PQ will deate a government report on the status of the French language, diich argues that the French fact in Quebec is seriously endangered and that the only way to protect it, short of separation, is irther legislative intervention. If endorsed, this would further

ie PQ’s goal of strengthening Bill 101 by estricting the use of English even more han is now the case when it comes to signs ¿ id schooling. And the PQ could once gain ban all languages except French on ommercial signs. (This law was softened by the Liberals and now allows other languages on signs, but only if the type size is considerably smaller.)

Party hardliners also want to deny children access to English schools unless one of their parents was educated in English in Quebec. Currently, access is provided for children if one parent was educated in English in Canada, not just Quebec. (Immigrant children and francophone children are another matter. They have been denied English-language schools since the mid-1970s, unless their parents were transferred from abroad or had obtained a special exemption.)

But far more sweeping is the PQ’s official platform, which recommends that restric-

tions be expanded beyond the secondary school level to CEGEPs, or community colleges. Civil-rights activist and Montreal lawyer Brent Tyler has published a compelling summary of court cases that have condemned these restrictive language measures. Unfortunately, Quebec has circumvented the court decisions by invoking the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which allows any province to opt out of certain otherwise guaranteed rights.

As Tyler—who backs the idea that federalist regions of Quebec could separate from an independent Quebec—points out, bans against English in Quebec have been ruled illegal, and also contravene several international treaties signed by Canada in order to protect civil rights. “The related measure of applying restrictions to CEGEPs would not be unconstitutional because the Constitution only protects primary and secondary schools,” adds Tyler. “It would, however, be in flagrant violation of the United Nations’ Recommendation Against Discrimination in Education and the International Covenant on the Rights of the Child.”

Such changes would also be very unpopular with many francophones. “Attending an English CEGEP is their first opportunity

to learn or improve their English because they cannot legally attend an English primary or secondary school in Quebec, and there are only a handful of French schools with English immersion. It is also forbidden to teach English until Grade 4 and forbidden to teach it for more than three hours per week.”

The sign ban has already been struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1988. It ruled that the ban was an infringement of the right of freedom of expression under Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But the law was resurrected when then-Premier Robert Bourassa invoked the notwithstanding clause.

Another blow to the law came in 1993 after Quebec anglophones took the matter to the United Nations. The UN Committee on Hu-

man Rights held that while Quebec could require the presence of French on signs, it could not prohibit other languages under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Following the United Nations’ objections, Bourassa passed Bill 86, which allowed signs to be in languages other than French, provided that French dominated the space.

Sign bans are an embarrassment, but the most unjust language actions involve children’s rights. Tyler notes that preventing access to English-language instruction for English-speaking children who move to Quebec from other provinces would run counter to Section 23(1) (a) of the Canadian Constitution. This section, which Quebec can opt out of, is designed to protect Canadians who are members of linguistic minorities. It states that children of Canadian citizens whose first language learned and still understood is English or French (and that language is not the dominant language in

their region) are nonetheless entitled to be educated in their own language “where numbers warrant.”

Quebec’s language laws also transgress international law, notably the UNESCO Recommendation Against Discrimination. That document defines discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion or limitation or preference, which based on ... birth [parents’ ethnicity] has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing equality of treatment in education.”

Says Tyler: “Both the UNESCO Recommendation and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted in 1989 provide that children have intrinsic rights as human beings, independent of the situation of their parents. It is discriminatory at the most basic level to attribute to or to remove rights from children based on some factual characteristic of their parents. To do so constitutes discrimination on the basis of birth or descent.”

It remains a disgrace that individual Canadians like Tyler and others must appeal for justice to international bodies. Our own government should be protecting us. Quebec’s behavior is an international embarrassment and an abrogation of the rule, and spirit, of our own laws.