THE POLITICIANS APPEAL FOR CALM AFTER THE COURT STRIKES DOWN QUEBEC'S FRENCH-ONLY SIGN LAW
THE SIGNS OF HOSTILITY
THE POLITICIANS APPEAL FOR CALM AFTER THE COURT STRIKES DOWN QUEBEC'S FRENCH-ONLY SIGN LAW
In Quebec City, armed guards kept the homes of the premier and provincial cabinet ministers under surveillance to protect them from possible attack. In Montreal, police were on alert because of fears that nationalist demonstrators might vandalize English-Canadian businesses. The heightened tension across Quebec last week underscored the sensitivities surrounding the latest episode in the province’s long-standing language controversy. In a 5-to-0 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a section of Quebec’s 11-year-old language law, commonly known as Bill 101, that banned the use of languages other than French on commercial signs. Mindful of the passionate language battles that rocked Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s, political leaders on all sides urged moderation. “For God’s sake, hold your horses for a little while,” Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau said in a statement directed at anglophone merchants. Any premature attempt to erect English-only signs, Parizeau added bluntly, would be interpreted by his supporters as “a provocation.”
Although last week’s judgment dealt only with the legality of Quebec’s French-only sign law, the deeper issue was how far the province could go in attempting to preserve and promote the French language and culture. The Supreme Court ruling was unequivocal: although the province had the right to require merchants to display signs in French, it did not have the power to prohibit the use of other languages. The ruling placed Premier Robert
Bourassa squarely on the spot, but he decided to delay a substantive response until Sunday, saying that he wanted to meet first with his 99member Liberal caucus, members of the 400member General Council from across the province and his cabinet before offering his “solution.”
But even before Bourassa’s Dec. 18 statement, there was a round of suggestions from all sides of the emotionally charged issue about what the embattled premier should do. In a vivid illustration of the intensity of the language debate engulfing the premier, cabinet sources said that three anglophone ministers—Environment Minister Clifford Lincoln, Communications Minister Richard French and Solicitor General Herbert Marx—might resign if the premier decided to allow bilingual signs inside stores while keeping French-only signs outside. If he did so, Bourassa would have had to weigh the political consequences of exempting the signs provisions from both the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights. Some anglophones urged Bourassa to amend the law to permit both English and French on outdoor signs and to require that French be given greater prominence. On the other extreme were those calling on Bourassa to reaffirm Bill 101 by changing Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
But there were indications that the public mood was less hostile: a poll of 700 people taken by Montreal-based Telepoll Research after the court decision was released found that 70 per cent of those questioned agreed that other languages should be allowed on commercial signs along with French, 26 per cent said that other languages should not be allowed, and four per cent said that ~ they did not know. But when i they were asked about the s effect of the Supreme Court 2 ruling on relations between
the French and English in Quebec, 50 per cent said that the decision will worsen relations, 19 per cent said relations will improve, 18 per cent said there will be no change, and 12 per cent did not know. But previous polls have always shown that there is overwhelming support in Quebec for Bill 101.
Even so, one thing was clear: no matter what he decided to do, Bourassa was sure to encounter strong opposition from politicians and interest groups. During the 1985 provincial election campaign, his Liberals promised the province’s linguistic minorities that if their party formed
the next government they would relax restrictions on bilingual signs. But once in office, Bourassa decided not to change the signs law as long as the case against it was still before the courts. As a result, the controversy has continued for three years—during which time leaders on both sides of the language debate dug in their heels, leaving the premier less room for compromise.
Bourassa was under immense pressure from outside the province as well. The Quebec premier was one of the most outspoken proponents of the 1987 Meech Lake constitutional accord because of its provision ensuring special status for Quebec. But the agreement cannot become law unless all 10 provincial legislatures ratify it by June, 1990. As yet, neither Manitoba nor New Brunswick has given its approval. And support for the accord in English Canada, already under strain, could weaken even further if Bourassa’s response to the Supreme Court ruling were perceived as limiting the rights of the province’s anglophone minority.
In Manitoba, where Premier Gary Filmon’s Conservative government has a minority in the legislature, both the Liberals and the NDP oppose the Meech Lake accord—and last week Filmon agreed, in opening debate on the matter, that the agreement is “too narrow.” But the premier also said that it was a “necessary first step” and suggested a companion resolution expressing the legislature’s reservations. Manitoba Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs rejected that option, insisting that Meech Lake should be amended. Earlier, she also said that any attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court
decision could incite a backlash from the rest of the country. Added Carstairs: “We are a bilingual country, plain and simple.”
Still, Bourassa’s immediate concern was to quell opposition from Quebec nationalists, who believe that their government has an obligation to ensure that French remains the primary language of the province. Last spring, more than 25,000 Quebecers took to the streets to show their support for Bill 101 and urge the government not to give in to pressure for bilingual signs. That sentiment was echoed last week by the Conseil de la langue française, a 12-member, government-appointed panel that advises Bourassa on language policy. In a letter to the premier two days before the court handed down its decision, the council said that French-only signs helped to preserve the special character of Quebec. “Bilingual signs would carry a totally different message,” the letter added. “By putting French and English on an equal base, it would signal to immigrants that they can choose whichever language they prefer.”
In spite of such pressures, last week’s judgment did not come as a surprise to most Quebecers. Both the Quebec Superior Court and the Quebec Court of Appeal had earlier ruled against the sign provisions of Bill 101, which imposed fines of between $60 and $1,150 on companies that failed to display French-only signs. But the Supreme Court ruling contained an important consolation for Bourassa: in an ironic twist, the five justices struck down the sign law because of a provision in Quebec’s own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms—introduced by Bourassa’s govern-
ment in 1976—that guarantees freedom of expression. The Supreme Court did not cite the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Noted Bourassa after reviewing the decision: “One of the arguments raised by opponents of the federal government is that there is an external power imposing its view on Quebec with respect to language. That argument cannot now be used.”
The court also appeared to give Bourassa at least some room to manoeuvre in his search for a legal solution to Quebec’s language dilemma. The ruling said that the province had the legal right to ensure that French was given “marked predominance” over other languages. Some constitutional experts suggested that the decision would allow both French and English to appear on signs as long as the French lettering was larger.
But others close to Bourassa suggested that this criterion of “marked predominance” could be met by preserving Frenchonly signs outside, while allowing bilingual ones inside establishments. For their part, spokesmen for Quebec’s anglophones voiced opposition to that proposal. But officials of Alliance Quebec, an English-rights lobby group that helped to pay the legal costs of five companies that challenged the French-only signs provisions of Bill 101, said privately that they would be unlikely to launch another court challenge because the group had little energy left for a fight.
At the same time, Bourassa himself would likely be uncomfortable with the prosecution of offenders because of the prospect of provoking another lengthy—and politically embarrassing—court battle. Said Stephen Scott, a law professor and constitutional expert at McGill University in Montreal: “Who is to say that an inside-outside solution is not ‘marked predominance’ except the courts? And that ruling, if it ever were asked for, is a long way off.” But before the court decision, syndicated columnist Michel Roy argued: “The inside-outside solution may violate the sense of fair play in the English community. But it may appeal to Bourassa because it is a moderate solution which should avoid provoking a social crisis.”
Bourassa also had pressing political reasons for not wanting to appear to be giving in to the demands of Quebec’s English-speaking minority for bilingual signs. Although his government has been in office only three years, Liberal officials said that Bourassa would like to call an election early in 1989 to take advantage of his party’s current high standing in the public opinion polls. But Liberal strategists acknowledged that the party’s popularity could suffer if
language, rather than the economy, became the major issue in the next election. Said Roy: “Language is the only issue which invigorates the PQ and gives them political life.”
The immediate response of nationalist groups to the court’s decision underscored the volatility of the language issue. In Quebec City, the militant Confederation of National Trade Unions organized a demonstration against changes to the language law outside the legislature. But only 500 protesters, invoking the number of the bill by chanting “cent un, cent
un,” showed up in the freezing temperatures. At a French community college in the Montreal suburb of St-Laurent, about 200 students cheered and chanted “independence” after hearing former Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) terrorist Paul Rose denounce the Supreme Court ruling as “extremist.” The students later marched to a nearby bakery displaying a bilingual sign and plastered its windows with stickers reading in French, “Hands off Bill 101.” Other critics of the Supreme Court ruling included the Quebec wing of the New Democratic Party, the Quebec Federation of Labour and the Mouvement national des Québécois (MNQ), a nationalist umbrella organization. In a statement, the MNQ said that the judgment marked “a day of mourning for the Quebec nation.”
By contrast, the reaction of Quebec anglo-
phones was initially subdued. Morton Brownstein, a businessman whose company was among those that challenged Bill 101, said that he planned to await Bourassa’s decision before deciding whether to purchase bilingual signs for his Brown’s chain of shoe stores. Said Brownstein: “We will not contravene the law or do anything to upset the sensitive balance that exists in the province right now.” But Montreal businessman Allan Singer, 75, who lost a separate Supreme Court case arguing for the right to post English-only signs, was less philosophical. In Ottawa to hear the ruling, Singer vowed to keep fighting for the right to post English-only signs. Montreal lawyer Peter Blaikie, a leading crusader for English-language rights, predicted that most Quebec anglophones would not want to antagonize the French majority. Said Blaikie: “Frequently, if people have rights, they exercise them with respect. It is legal to speak English in the Quebec national assembly, but anglophone MNAs choose to speak French.”
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was equally cautious in the wake of last week’s decision. One problem he faced was that many Tory MPs from Quebec favored retaining the province’s unilingual signs law—even if it meant that Bourassa would have to use his power to exempt the law from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And according to one senior Mulroney adviser, the Tories deliberately tried to steer clear of language controversies in Saskatchewan and Alberta earlier this year because they knew that the Su5 preme Court’s ruling on Bill 101 § was imminent. Said the adviser: 3 “We did not bring the big ham^ mer down on Saskatchewan and Alberta and we do not want to have to bring it down on Quebec, either.” But Mulroney was clearly concerned that Bourassa might indeed exempt the signs provision from the Canadian charter. “If that happens,” said the adviser, “Mulroney would have terrible, terrible trouble. That’s our bottom line.”
As a longtime friend of the Quebec premier, Mulroney also was well aware of Bourassa’s own strong feelings on the subject. Describing those sentiments, one Quebec Liberal minister said, “Bourassa’s deepest instincts tell him that a little bilingualism leads to total bilingualism, and bilingualism is a threat to the existence of the French language.” Now that the Supreme Court had spoken, Bourassa had little choice but to face the language controversy head on.
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