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Documents in Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

Documents on the Controversy Surrounding the Language of Commercial Signs in Quebec (Bill 178) December 1988

Debates in the National Assembly
[December 20, 1988]

M. Claude Ryan,
Minister of Education,
Liberal Party.


"Madame President, as were all of the members of the National Assembly, I was profoundly moved by the events of the last few days. >>From the strictly rational point of view, I refused, and I continue to refuse to believe that the question of commercial advertising has all of the importance for our [collective] future that the present debates seem to assign to it. It is within itself, in a profound contact with its sources, and while developing its essential interior values, that a people finds and enriches its pride, confidence in itself and hope.

"Nobody will make me believe that, from a strictly objective point of view, commercial advertising and its concrete applications could be so vital to the future of a people as some would like us to think and proclaim. I am equally not convinced, I tell you this in all simplicity, by the opinion of the Supreme Court of Canada which establishes a vital and essential link between the commercial discourse and the intellectual, political, cultural social or religious discourse. The commercial discourse, that is to say the promotion and publicity of commercial products, goods and services for purposes of profit, is in my mind much more clearly linked to freedom of trade than to freedom of expression properly speaking. Freedom of trade, while a very important element in the liberal vision of society, is not at the same level as the great fundamental freedoms that the charters of rights have proclaimed since the Second World War.

"Nowhere in the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights and freedoms is freedom of trade found. Rather, this type of freedom is part of social and economic rights that, while very important, have not acquired the same degree of development and clarity in the modern charters of rights as the rights that are properly fundamental. [...] The right to a fair trial, for example, cannot suffer exception anywhere in the world. The right to privacy is another fundamental right that cannot accept exceptions. However, when we speak of the right of commercial advertising, and even of the commercial discourse, I think that we can introduce many nuances, and that the Supreme Court of Canada on page 75 has not said the last word on this [...]

[...] "We must also guard ourselves against confusing fundamental rights and linguistic rights [...]. Freedom of thought, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, these are fundamental rights, and we find them in all of the great charters of human rights. On the other hand, it is much rarer to find in the charters precise linguistic rights. Charters speak frequently of the rights of linguistic, cultural and religious minorities, of the maintenance and the development of their identity, but they rarely go very far in the definition of these rights, and, when they do so, they do it in specific sections, and apart from the sections on fundamental rights, as if their authors wanted to establish that these are not the same thing.

[...] "By arguing this, I do not wish to say that linguistic rights have only secondary importance. Not at all. We, who speak French, have paid dearly in our Canadian country the price for our attachment to our language and we know how much linguistic rights are vital in our eyes. [...].

"In these matters there does not exist a unique and uniform model that one could apply everywhere [...]

[...] "In Quebec, we have long lived as if the rights of the anglophone minority were not a matter of discussion [allaient de soi]. For a long time we have recognised to this minority more rights, and applied them sincerely and fully, than all of the other provinces put together. But, while generous, we have come to realise that in some respects we did so in a manner that went beyond what is reasonable and just. In the field of education, for example, we practised for a long time freedom of choice between English and French schools. We continued to do so until we realised, in the years following the Second World War, that our generosity and openness ended up injuring in the most primitive of manner our collective interest as the newcomers opted in vast majority to go to the schools of the anglophone minority.


[…] "Many contended at the time, and I was among those that did so, that Bill 101, by imposing French unilingual signs was going too far and violated individual rights. However, many, including myself, have discovered along the way – I did it thanks to ten years of political activities in all the corners of Quebec – two realities that I had underestimated, I admit it with frankness, the first being the deep attachment of francophone Quebecers for Bill 101, and the other being the identification in the mind of the francophone population between the respect for Bill 101 and the defence of the French language in Quebec.


"In invoking, as it has done, the notwithstanding clause to maintain outside advertising in French only, the government has only manifestly followed the will of the population. At this stage of our evolution, and given public opinion, the government has merely registered that the Quebec population cares deeply to maintain the French face of Quebec, a face that is always fragile and threatened in Quebec. The government has expressed, in acting the way it did, a conviction that is largely held in Quebec.

[…] "Contrary to the views expressed by Herbert Marx] "I believe that the presence of the notwithstanding clause in the Canadian constitution was justified, and continues to be so, so as to prevent some questions with a strong political or social incidence – I am not just thinking about the linguistic issue – to be decided far too exclusively, and in a preponderant manner, by judges, especially considering the relative young age of these charters and their recent proliferation […].


"In the case at hand presently, if the government had only thought of its immediate popularity, it could have invoked the notwithstanding clause and maintained, purely and simply, the status quo on the subject of signs. This was the easy way out, the way that would have extirpated us from the immediate situation created by the decision of the Supreme Court. However, given the convictions of the Liberal Party of Quebec, the government did not wish to remain unmoved by voices within the party, and within Quebec society, where everybody regardless of their origin, their religion or their language are fundamentally equal. The government has not wished to remain aloof from openness, and thus the second part of the government decisions: to allow a relative presence to another language on signs inside of commercial establishments. This was not an easy decision to make and it is not easy to explain it today […]".

© For the translation, 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College