ANOTHER VIEW

We’re number 1 in language debates

Could a premier who had the misfortune of being short invoke the notwithstandingon-tiptoe clause?

CHARLES GORDON January 9 1989
ANOTHER VIEW

We’re number 1 in language debates

Could a premier who had the misfortune of being short invoke the notwithstandingon-tiptoe clause?

CHARLES GORDON January 9 1989

We’re number 1 in language debates

ANOTHER VIEW

Could a premier who had the misfortune of being short invoke the notwithstandingon-tiptoe clause?

CHARLES GORDON

Early indications are that 1989 will be a year for arguing about languages again. Canadians are very good at it. Other nations have more than one language in operation, but do not argue about it with the eloquence, the passion, the hypocrisy that characterize the Canadian debate. We do it better than the Flemings and the Walloons, better than the Swiss. The Americans occasionally try a bit of an argument on EnglishSpanish bilingualism, but it always falls short. Somebody says, “It ain’t the American way,” and that’s that. Only the French can possibly surpass us in the ability to argue about languages—an extraordinary accomplishment given the fact that they only have one.

Still, Canadians haven’t argued about language for a few years. Some of us thought the new Constitution was going to take care of all that. Others thought the defeat of the separatists in Quebec would end it, given the fact that a pledge of bilingual signs was part of the platform of the victorious Quebec Liberals in the provincial election of 1985. We should have known that was a simplistic way of looking at things. Now a debate looms, and we are a bit rusty.

We know that the debate is going to be about Bill 101. Except that there is a bit of debate on that. Some people say it is Law 101, not Bill 101, which seems to make a certain amount of sense given the fact that it is a law now, not a bill. But there is a lack of consensus on it just the same, and you can find both forms in your newspapers. No better illustration is needed of Canada’s expertise in arguments about language than this—the argument begins with an argument over what words the argument is about.

There is something Canadian also in the fact that one key word in the debate is not a word at all—a ringing word like “justice” or “equality” or “tyranny”—but a number: 101. And that the other key word is not an emotional word

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen

like “right” or “truth” or “liberty,” but a wishy-washy word, one of the most wishy and washy in the English language: “notwithstanding.”

Our debate—and this further demonstrates our stature as world-class language debaters— is about the use of the notwithstanding clause to defend Bill 101. Not many other countries could pull it off, but this one can. We will talk and talk and talk. At times we will veer dangerously close to action—in fact, 1989 could be known as the Year of Talking Dangerously— but will always pull back from the brink.

In the great debating nations—among which we modestly place ourselves—debate continues, no matter what. It leads to further debate. In inferior nations, debate leads to bloodshed, or at least to action of some sort. The difficulty with that is easy to recognize: debate ceases once action is taken. Canadians have found a way of avoiding the kind of debate that leads to action; we keep our voices down, we don’t use words like “principle” and “justice” and “rights.” We use words like “compromise” and “expedient” and “possible” and “notwithstanding.”

We do not debate principles. We debate the details of compromises. The debate now—at

least among those who count: the politicians, the intellectuals, the bureaucrats—is not about the principle of languages other than French being prohibited on signs in Quebec. Rather, it is about the compromise adopted by the Bourassa government. The compromise contains lots of details. The politicians, the bureaucrats and the intellectuals fall hungrily upon those details, knowing that learned papers can be written about them, knowing that official standards of measurement will have to be established relating the sizes of the languages on signs, knowing that a Quebec government Office of Typography will in all likelihood arise, knowing that there inevitably will be federalprovincial meetings of politicians, and federalprovincial meetings of officials after that, to sort out the finer points. The details of compromise represent a growth industry.

“Hmmmmm,” say the professionals of the language debate. “French outside, English inside. That’s interesting.” Thoughts of just and unjust vanish from their heads, if they were ever present, and they fall to thinking of definitions. A sign outside a store in a shopping mall is really inside, in terms of the out-of-doors, but is the sign inside the store inside the mall more inside than the sign that is merely inside the mall?

Their thoughts turn to other possible solutions. What about certain specified days of the week—perhaps Tuesdays and Thursdays—on which languages other than French could be used on signs? That might lend a certain festive air to those occasions. What about carefully supervised Language-Free Zones within large cities, set up as a tourist attraction and prevented from spreading by strict zoning measures? Or, along the lines of the inside-outside solution, what about an up-down one—so that all signs at eye level or above would have to be in French and all signs below could be in other languages? What would be the consequences of that, say, for tall people? Could you write a legislative definition of a tall person that would satisfy the extremists on both sides, and yet still not be in violation of the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Could a provincial premier who had the misfortune of being short invoke the notwithstanding-on-tiptoe clause?

With each refinement comes a debate on the refinement, with the result that the door slams forever on the possibility of a debate on the principle. With principle out of the way, the likelihood of action becomes more and more remote and the likelihood of further debate increases to the level of virtual certainty—thus guaranteeing Canada’s continued supremacy among language-debating nations.

Somewhere out there, perhaps in the shopping mall watching the signs being moved in and out, perhaps in the public galleries watching the politicians discuss compromises, are people unschooled in the finer points of language debating. Much in the manner of the kid who saw that the emperor had no clothes, they try to ask a stupid question: “Hey, isn’t it wrong to forbid people to use their languages on their signs?” Instantly, a guard appears. “You’ll have to be quiet,” he says, polite but firm, “they are trying to have a debate.”