GUEST COLUMN

The failures of Robert Bourassa

Instead of trying to build peace between French and English, he failed to seize the moment and pleased no one

JAMES STEWART January 2 1989
GUEST COLUMN

The failures of Robert Bourassa

Instead of trying to build peace between French and English, he failed to seize the moment and pleased no one

JAMES STEWART January 2 1989

The failures of Robert Bourassa

GUEST COLUMN

Instead of trying to build peace between French and English, he failed to seize the moment and pleased no one

JAMES STEWART

Robert BQurassa saw the Ghost of Crisis Past last week, and braced himself for the Ghost of Crisis Yet to Come. Apparitions from Bourassa's first incarnation as premier of Quebec surged into the Christmas-decorated streets of Montreal. Banner-waving, flag-burning crowds— just like the ones of the 1970s—demanded the premier’s head in mass demonstrations for an all-French, independent Quebec. College students wildly cheered one particularly ominous figure from the past—ex-terrorist Paul Rose, paroled in 1982 after serving 12 years for the kidnap and murder of Pierre Laporte, Bourassa’s labor minister in 1970.

For the 55-year-old Bourassa, history seemed to be repeating itself with uncanny precision, and he seemed to be repeating all the errors of his 1970-1976 term as premier. Quebec’s interminable language conflict, and his devious, indecisive handling of it, helped bring him down in 1976. Now, the same conflict is raging again, after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the Quebec language law ordaining French-only commercial signs. And Bourassa once again is enraging anglophones—by going too far to protect French— and francophones by not going far enough.

Like Bourassa’s original language law, Bill 22, the new legislation is aggravating linguistic antagonisms rather than resolving them. The legislation continues to require most outdoor commercial signs to be exclusively in French. But it permits bilingual signs inside stores and businesses, provided French is predominant. The legislation also invokes notwithstanding clauses, overriding both the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights.

Bourassa just can’t seem to find the handle on linguistic issues. Here he is, at the end of 1988, with a new language law that has caused three English-speaking ministers to resign, has split his caucus and his Liberal party. It has a better-than-even chance of dividing Quebec anglophones and francophones, turning English Canada against Quebec and breathing new life into the moribund separatist movement. It looks like a familiar replay.

James Stewart is an editorial writer for The Gazette in Montreal.

One of the sad parts about the current renewal of hostilities is that Bourassa had an unparalleled chance to build an enduring linguistic peace in Quebec, but he failed to seize the moment. Quebecers had rejected separatism in the 1980 referendum, and the old enemy, the anglophones, was rapidly fading away. The stores even dropped their unFrench apostrophes and became Eaton, Simpson, Steinberg.

Life without apostrophes was tolerable for most anglos, federalism seemed safe and linguistic peace was at hand. Bourassa returned to power in that rosy climate on a campaign promise to remove the prohibition on bilingual signs. But Robert Bourassa couldn’t make up his mind. He dawdled and drew back, giving the shattered PQ and the French-only militants time and opportunity to recover.

The Quebec Superior Court had already ruled in 1984 that the sign law violated the freedom of expression guaranteed in both the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights. A year after Bourassa returned to office, the Quebec Court of Appeal confirmed the lower court, ruling that Quebec could require French on all signs but could not prohibit the use of another language at the same time.

Bourassa could hardly have asked for a ruling more tailor-made to his own campaign promises. Yet he could not bring himself to act. Spooked by noisy nationalists using the slogan “Don’t touch Bill 101,” he decided in 1987 to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada for a final ruling.

Now that ruling has come, after nearly two years in which the PQ has chosen a new leader, Jacques Parizeau, whose hard-line stance has remobilized separatist and anti-English sentiments in Quebec. The Supreme Court struck down the French-only sign law as a violation of freedom of expression. The court said that French needed protection in Quebec, and Quebec was justified in giving French “marked predominance” on all signs. But, said the court, the province could not justify banning the use of other languages at the same time.

The too-clever Bourassa responded with an inside-outside formula that is offensive to both sides. It tells anglophones that their language is not fit to be seen on the street. And it provokes many francophones, who fear that the English bilingual camel, once let inside the store, will soon force its way outside, marring the French face of Montreal.

The linguistic landscape in Quebec now is more confused and contradictory than ever. And elsewhere in Canada, the Meech Lake accord is being questioned because it recognizes Quebec as a “distinct society” within Canada. But will English-Canadians want a constitutional document in which the “distinct society” overrides minority rights to preserve “social peace”?

“Social peace” is the phrase Bourassa uses to explain that he can’t be too nice to Englishspeaking Quebecers for fear of inciting francophones to riot. That is not exactly courageous leadership—trimming public policy to suit the brick-throwers and spray-can artists—and it may not even be effective leadership.

Bourassa may get the riots anyway. He may get the cold shoulder from his partners in Confederation, and the cold contempt of French and English Quebecers. He may divide his citizens, revive the forces for separation, and re-create the outside world’s harmful old image of Quebec as an unfriendly and unstable place. Then again, none of those things may happen. The protesters might run out of steam, the clumsy reconciliation of individual rights with collective destiny might prove workable and even comfortable.

It is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but one that Bourassa has less chance of achieving now than he did when he returned in 1985, supposedly reborn as a wiser and stronger man. He missed the opportunity, the reincarnation did not take. Robert Bourassa, unfortunately, came back as Robert Bourassa.

Allan Fotheringham is on vacation.