Language Law Decision in Quebec

It began with equal French and English lettering on a store sign, escalated with a $75 fine under Quebec's language laws - and ended with a court victory for Gwen Simpson and Wally Hoffmann. But the owners of The Lyon and the Wallrus, a gift and picture-frame shop in the scenic Eastern Townships town of Knowlton, had little time to savour the moment in peace. On Wednesday, the couple sat beaming before reporters in Montreal after a lower court judge struck down a section of Quebec's language law requiring that French be predominant on commercial signs. When they returned to their home later that day, two dozen congratulatory messages had already flooded their answering machine. The next morning, a television crew showed up at 5 a.m. for an interview. "There were no celebrations last night, I'll tell you," an elated Simpson told Maclean's the day after the ruling. "We're not centre stage. It's the law. It's a law that should be struck down."

And it was, in a stunning decision by Quebec Court Judge Danielle Côté. Although the Parti Québécois government immediately announced plans to appeal, the ruling thrust the thorny language issue back into the forefront of Quebec politics. Inevitably, it brought predictions that a reignited language debate might revive the foundering sovereignty movement - at a time when Ottawa has already been stirring the pot with talk about laying out the terms, possibly through legislation, for negotiating with Quebec in the event of a Yes referendum vote. That was an unwelcome twist for the provincial Liberals, who have historically been perceived as lesser defenders of the French language than the PQ. Which may partly explain Liberal Leader Jean CHAREST's overheated response - and his accusation that the PQ may have deliberately tried to provoke a language crisis by not properly defending the Lyon and the Wallrus case in court. "It looks like a provocation," declared Charest. "It is either provocation - or incompetence at the highest level."

The resurgence of the language tempest follows a decade of relative linguistic peace in the province. When the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Quebec's then-existing French-only sign provision in 1988, it ruled that restricting the size of English on commercial signs could be justified because of the vulnerability of the French language. That premise, subsequently enshrined in law by Premier Robert Bourassa's Liberal government, was challenged by Simpson and Hoffmann. During the court case, lawyers for the Quebec government refused to present evidence that the sign laws are still justified because of the continued, precarious situation of the French language, arguing that the Supreme Court had already ruled on the matter. But Côté said, in essence, that things change over 11 years, and ruled in favour of the Knowlton couple.

PQ politicians reacted angrily. "I don't think it's up to Quebec Court to modify a judgment of the Supreme Court," declared Justice Minister Linda Goupil as she announced the province's appeal. And Premier Lucien BOUCHARD, in Los Angeles to promote investment in his province, flatly denied the suggestion that the PQ had deliberately lost the case. He also reaffirmed his government's commitment to defend the French language. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist," he declared, "to realize that French will always be threatened."

For lawyer Brent Tyler, who represented Simpson and Hoffmann, civil rights is the issue. For too long, he maintains, Quebec anglophones have sacrificed those rights for the sake of Canadian unity, not pushing their demands for fear of provoking sovereigntists. Tyler now has seven other sign-law infraction trials pending. He insists that polls show the vast majority of Quebecers do not have a problem "with what we're proposing: require French - and allow other languages of equal size at the option of the merchant." But while some anglophone activists rejoiced and some sovereigntists fumed, reaction among other Quebecers, both English and French, appeared muted.

Gary Richards, the president of the English-rights Townshippers' Association, predicts Quebecers won't spend much time on the barricades because of the ruling. "There is no stomach for the language debate any longer in either French or English Quebec," he contends. In calls to one francophone Montreal radio talk show, people simply reaffirmed the necessity to protect the French language, said co-host Jean Lapierre. "The end of this case will take at least five years," he noted. "We'll deal with it down the road."

That point is also made by provincial Liberal caucus chairman Jacques Chagnon, who doubts that Péquistes will be able to seize on the issue - at least in the short term. "For as long as the dossier will be in court," Chagnon notes, "there's not a lot of room to make political hay out of it." The provincial Liberals, however, know first-hand the flashpoint potential of the language issue: in 1989, for example, 50,000 people took to the streets in Montreal to demand the return of French-only signs. Language questions, Chagnon acknowledges, "are always dangerous."

But the more imminent prospect of referendum legislation from Ottawa clearly rattles provincial Liberals more. "It's the federal government file that scares us the most," concedes Chagnon - and several federal Liberals, including Quebec and Ontario MPs, share his unease. Let sleeping dogs lie is the refrain among many Liberals who fear that a move by Ottawa would help resuscitate the sovereignty movement. "The majority of the constituents in my riding just want us to leave things alone," says Montreal-area Liberal MP Nick Discepola. Noting sovereignty's low support in recent polls, Discepola adds: "If we give them any emotional issue that they can sort of latch on to, my fear is that those emotions will be stirred up to the point where either Bouchard may call a snap election or a referendum."

He cites the success of the Chrétien government's incremental approach to problem-solving - the so-called moderate Plan A (as opposed to the hardline Plan B, with its threats of tough negotiations and economic disaster after a Yes vote). "In my opinion, Plan A is the right approach," says Discepola, "because you've got to appeal to the emotion - the heart of people in order to have them remain in Canada." Sabre-rattling by Ottawa - not to mention controversial court rulings against legislation intended to protect the French language - could have the opposite effect. Simpson, meanwhile, knows the sign saga will drag on - but she and Hoffmann plan to forge ahead. "We both have the courage of our convictions that this is the right thing to do," she says. What is less clear for Quebecers, at the moment, is how the case will reverberate politically.

See also BILL 101.

Maclean's November 1, 1999