CANADA

A new language debate

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 5 1986
CANADA

A new language debate

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 5 1986

A new language debate

CANADA

After Premier Robert Bourassa introduced the 1974 law that made French the only official language of Quebec, he described the ensuing public reaction as “one of the most difficult things I have ever faced.” Some critics complained that the legislation went too far by imposing linguistic testing on children before entering English schools. Others maintained that it did not go far enough to ensure the primacy of French over other languages. In that highly charged political climate, Bourassa was shoved, spat upon and occasionally threatened by irate Quebecers. And the bitter emotions aroused by the debate ultimately contributed to his Liberal government’s electoral defeat by René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois in 1976. The PQ replaced the Liberal measure with a language charter that ensconced French as the primary language of government and commerce. Now, Bourassa’s new Liberal government faces an unwelcome renewal of the language debate.

At issue is his government’s decision to suspend prosecutions of merchants for posting bilingual commercial signs until the Quebec Court of Appeal rules later this year on the validity of the 1977 PQ legislation requiring that signs be in French only. In December, 1984, the Quebec Superior Court overturned the 1977 law, part of the Charter of the French Language known as Bill 101, because it contravened the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. PQ Leader Pierre Marc Johnson, then justice minister, subsequently asked Crown attorneys to delay prosecution of offenders until the Court of Appeals heard the government challenge. But now, led by Johnson, Péquistes are demanding that the Liberals continue prosecutions. Declared Johnson: “The law is the law until it is changed, and it must be obeyed.” But, said Justice Minister Herbert Marx, who is in charge of prosecutions under the charter, “we

are going to wait for the court to declare before we do anything.”

Indeed, although the Liberals will not prosecute offenders with bilingual signs, the premier confessed last week to Quebec City broadcaster Pierre Bourgault that the bilingual sign issue is a “damn problem to which I have no solution.” Still, Bourassa’s Liberals are preparing to deal harshly with other offenders. This week charges will be

laid against more than 25 Quebec companies that are continuing to display English-only signs despite repeated government warnings. The measure amounts to the biggest single wave of prosecutions ever against alleged language offenders. Marx would not comment directly on the charges. But he told Maclean's, “We plan to make it clear that non-French, unilingual signs are unacceptable to this government.” The Liberals, who had hoped to sidestep debate on the language of public signs until the Court of Appeal ruling, blame two provincial civil servants for raising the issue again. Jean Martucci, chairman of the Conseil de la langue

française, which advises the provincial government on language matters, told a news conference in March that more and more Quebecers are ignoring the French-only sign law because the government is not enforcing it. Martucci said, “It is dangerous to let a law crumble without reaffirming it or adjusting it, especially when its fundamental objectives rally the entire population.” Then, last month Gaston Cholette, president of the Commission de protection de la langue française, the province’s language watchdog, told a news conference that his agency had stopped investigating suspected infractions. Any further inquiries, Cholette explained, would be “absolutely useless, inefficient, inappropriate and inopportune” because the Liberals had stopped prosecutions. Last week, after Cultural Affairs Minister Lise Bacon told reporters in Quebec City that the commission’s actions bordered on “insubordination,” Cholette announced that he had told inspectors to end the moratorium on investigations and “resume normal activities”—a measure that will include investigations of merchants with bilingual signs.

Still, the opposition Péquistes have been careful not to indulge animosities caused by the renewed language debate. Johnson, who initially suggested the Liberals were risking a return to

the “tensions” of the 1960s language debates, later refused to discuss the issue in public because, said one aide, “We have no wish to inflame passions.” Even within the PQ, some supporters have openly declared support for the principle of bilingual signs. Said anglophone Donald Waye, a twice-defeated PQ candidate on Montreal’s West Island: “As long as French is equal or predominant, it is crazy to refuse other languages.”

Montreal’s 520,000member English community has also reacted in low-key fashion. Many anglophones, fearful of a return to the vitriolic disputes of the 1970s, now vigorously denounce the principle of English-only signs.

Said an editorial in The Downtowner, an English-language Montreal weekly newspaper: “It falls to Quebec Anglos to complain as vociferously now against new English-only signs as our community did against French-only signs. Spurn them for they are dangerous to your health and

happiness.” Equally telling, Michael Goldbloom, president of the Englishrights group Alliance Quebec, said the organization “does not support the exclusive use of English and does not represent those who do.”

For his part, Bourassa is banking on the hope that quick and decisive government action will allow him to avoid a prolonged debate on language. Last week Education Minister Claude Ryan announced that the government will amend the 1977 language charter to allow children of parents educated in English in other parts of Canada to attend English-language schools in Quebec. The measure will affect between 1,000 and 1,500 schoolchildren who have been illegally enrolled in English schools since 1977. Said one aide to the premier: “It is our way of saying it is time for Quebecers to put the past behind and forgive.” And, the Liberals clearly hope, to forget.

-ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Montreal