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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

Inside-outside Dilemma
Editorial, Montreal Gazette,
December 17, 1988, p. B-2

Assorted voices are urging Premier Bourassa to adopt the inside-outside formula to replace the French-only sign law.

Mr. Bourassa can, of course, enact a law to require unilingual French signs outside an establishment and permit bilingual signs inside. But he should not.

The Supreme Court has ruled that it is an unjustified infringement of fundamental freedom to ban the use of languages other than French on public signs. Surely this is not a society that wants to restrict fundamental freedoms.

Some suggest the inside-outside formula would be acceptable because the Supreme Court said it would be permissible and justified to require that French be "markedly predominant" on all signs. They argue that keeping the outside face unilingually French would qualify as "marked predominance," as long as bilingualism is permitted inside buildings.

The court agreed that the French language needs protection and will always be vulnerable in North America. But the court also said that "requiring the exclusive use of French has not been so justified." And it warned that to ban other languages from Quebec's visage linguistique "does not reflect the reality of Quebec society."

These are vital points. The inside-outside formula does not satisfy them.

After all, the Supreme Court was considering the cases of five merchants with bilingual signs, four of them outdoor signs. If the court thought they were unacceptable, it surely would have said so.

Other people are urging the government to give up all pretense [sic] of recognizing basic rights. They say Quebec should use the notwithstanding clause to override the charters of rights.

But notwithstanding clauses are despicable. Their whole purpose is to let governments do things the charters forbid.

Quebec does need to protect and foster the French fact in Canada. But the court has shown how to reach that worthy goal without trampling on the rights of non-francophone Quebecers: requiring French and permitting other languages.

Mr. Bourassa's concern about social peace is understandable. There are some hotheads in our society. But there is also a large moderate majority. A fair policy on signs, accompanied by firm prosecution of those who continue to break the law, and substantial programs to bolster French in the schools and the workplace, would surely meet with their approval.

© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College