COLUMN

Muzzling the minority voice in Quebec

DIANE FRANCIS February 26 1996
COLUMN

Muzzling the minority voice in Quebec

DIANE FRANCIS February 26 1996

Muzzling the minority voice in Quebec

COLUMN

DIANE FRANCIS

This is the story of Quebec’s ruthless political and media elites, which have attempted to destroy the Equality party, a voice representing many of the province’s anglophones and allophones. Dubbed “ethnics” by the racist former premier Jacques Parizeau, these minorities have had their linguistic and other rights badly bruised by their own provincial government. And the only consistent advocate for their rights, the Equality party, has been systematically muffled.

As a member of the media, I defend their right to choose what, and whom, they report upon. But I cannot defend what smacks of de facto censorship. That aside, I realize the Equality party and some of its officials are not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea. But the point of this story is to reveal that the tactics used against the party are unacceptable in a democracy.

Now seatless in Quebec’s national assembly, the party won four ridings in 1989, its first election campaign. The party captured more than half of the anglophone vote where it ran candidates. While few in number, compared with the legislature’s 125-seat total, Equality was still able to put forward its platform of language fairness and rule of law.

Then, a series of embarrassments struck. Its leader, Robert Libman, eventually left and ran an unsuccessful campaign as an Independent in the 1994 provincial election. Another member jumped ship to the Parti Québécois. The party began to decay, but this was due, in large measure, to Equality’s slow strangulation by the media and the party’s political rivals, a process that continues today.

“The party was virtually murdered when CFCF TV’s news director issued a memo in May, 1993, to stop covering us,” Equality’s current leader, Keith Henderson, told me in a recent interview. “The news director wrote that Equality was a fringe player and was getting too much coverage. But a virtual blackout followed.” The inevitable result was that

The Equality party, the only consistent advocate of English -language rights, has been shut up by the media and the other political parties

Equality dropped calamitously to one per cent from six per cent in the opinion polls.

Leaked the memo by a CFCF reporter upset about censorship, Henderson wrote back to the news director: “As head of Pulse News, the Montreal English community’s chief source of news, you may feel that too much attention has been devoted to the policies and activities of the Equality party. We received 4.69 per cent of the popular vote in 1989, some 160,000 votes—a strong majority of English-speakers. The six-per-cent figure in recent polls suggests we may do even better next time around.”

With little support even in media outlets that had English audiences, Equality was dealt another blow in 1994’s provincial election when a consortium of Quebec television networks denied Equality the chance to participate in the leadership debate. Only Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson and Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau would be invited, and the debates were to be in French only.

This flew in the face of Quebec’s Election Act, which required broadcasters to give free, fair air time to leaders from “parties represented in the national assembly or which obtained at least three per cent of the valid votes at the last general election.” Equality qualified on both counts.

Henderson wrote to the television consortium and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, reminding the CRTC of its policy circular No. 334, which says: “The broadcaster does not enjoy the position of a benevolent censor who is able to give the public only what it ‘should’ know. Nor is it the broadcaster’s role to decide in advance which candidates are ‘worthy’ of broadcast time.” The guideline urges broadcasters to provide, among other things, “equitable” political coverage.

As Henderson pointed out, if the same restrictions had been applied during the 1993 federal election, Canadians would have been unable to hear Preston Manning and Lucien Bouchard debate. Even worse, protested Henderson, those debates would have had to be held in English only. The commission and consortium held firm, citing a subsequent court decision in Ontario that overruled the policy circular and allowed TV networks the latitude to choose who could participate in televised debates.

By far the most egregious blow to the Equality party came when it was unfairly frozen out of the subsequent referendum debate by the Liberals. Under the Quebec referendum rules, Yes and No committees were established and given the power to vet all advertising pertinent to the vote. They were also given $1 per voter, or about $5 million, to spend on the campaign.

“We made application to be an affiliated group to Daniel Johnson’s No committee [including Tory Leader Jean Charest] and had to go to court to be recognized as having the right to advance ideas that the Quebec Liberals would not advance,” explained Brent Tyler, a Montreal lawyer and former Equality party candidate. “For example, we wanted to point out you cannot have a 50-percent-plus-one vote that authorizes a unilateral declaration of independence where only 25 per cent of the Canadian population is called upon to vote.

“We wanted to tell voters that Guy Bertrand had won a court case that made the separatists’ plans to secede illegal. They refused to allow us to speak our piece and didn’t want constitutional and legal arguments. We lost three weeks of a four-week campaign fighting it out in court. We won, then they offered us $2,500 to run some kind of campaign. By that time and with that amount, it was too late.”

Three judges unanimously agreed that the No committee was wrong.

The committee denied Equality supporters their constitutional rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association. So did broadcasters during the election leadership debate in 1994, as did the CRTC. A healthy democracy should pave the way for the dissemination of many opinions and freedoms. What’s happened to the Equality party raises questions about Quebec’s commitment to an open society.