CANADA

Language on trial

January 5 1987
CANADA

Language on trial

January 5 1987

Language on trial

CANADA

The long-awaited judgment by the Quebec Court of Appeal was unanimous—and unequivocal. In a 71-page opinion last week, the five judges ruled that parts of Quebec’s French language charter—popularly known as Bill 101—which require businesses to post signs in French only are illegal because they violate clauses of both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms guaranteeing freedom of expression. Wrote Judge Claude Bisson: “Is there any purer form of freedom of expression than the spoken language and written language?”

The decision heightened political pressure on Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, who postponed his election pledge to allow bilingual signs until after the Court of Appeal had ruled. Said Michael Goldbloom, the president of Alliance Quebec, which lobbies on behalf of the province’s 850,000 Englishspeaking residents and which funded the legal challenge to the law: “The judgment sets out clear parameters for the government, and we expect them to respect their election commitments.” But any action to ease restrictions on languages other than French will likely encounter fierce hostility. After the Appeal Court ruling, two stores displaying bilingual signs were attacked. A suburban Montreal store run by Zellers Inc. was firebombed, and rocks were thrown through the windows of a florist shop run by Kenneth McKenna, one of the businessmen who successfully appealed the sign law. A group calling itself the Z cell of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ)—the name used by pro-independence terrorists in the 1960s and early 1970s—claimed responsibility for the attack on the Zellers store, but a Montreal police spokesman said he doubted that the FLQ was involved. Zellers hastily removed English signs from all its stores.

Before the court decision, Bourassa’s government reversed an earlier decision not to prosecute businesses displaying bilingual signs, and charged 27 Montreal-area merchants with violating Bill 101. Following the ruling, Bourassa would not say what would happen with those cases. The province has 90 days to decide whether to appeal the decision, and in the meantime, said the premier, “the law is in force.”

-BRUCE WALLACE in Montreal

BRUCE WALLACE