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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

The Anglophone Representatives Resignations Would Aggravate Confusion in their Community
Gilles Lesage,
Le Devoir, December 20, 1988, p. 6

The consternation, indeed the bitterness, that has gripped the anglophone members and Ministers of the National Assembly is strongly understandable. Despite the word given in March of 1985, and repeatedly reiterated since, the government has now restricted bilingual signs to the inside of commercial establishments; thus, it has limited freedom of expression, as celebrated by the Supreme Court. At a loss, feeling betrayed, once again, by the party that has been the natural object of their support, the representatives of the minority are leaning toward dissidence, if not resignation.

However, they should guard themselves against dramatic and irreparable gestures. In resigning, the ministers would deny their community of valid representation and the government of good and loyal servants. Whatever the cost, they should hang-on until the next elections.

Organised around two parties, our parliamentary system absorbs very badly dissent, as the deputies must follow necessarily the golden rule of cabinet solidarity. Despite the fact that they are above all groupings or coalitions that house many different ideologies, our parties impose a partisan line and artificial unanimity. It is very hard to get away from that.

In 1969, for Bill 63, J. J. Bertrand only tolerated abstentions: two had taken that course, and two had left to sit as independent members. In July of 1974, the members Ciaccia and Springate voted against Bill 22. Mr. Bourassa kept them away from the caucus for a few weeks; however the Liberal Party had not imposed sanctions, thus admitting, with reason, that there existed a certain right to dissent. In September of 1981, Prime Minister Levesque submitted to the Assembly a motion begging Ottawa to abandon the unilateral patriation of the Constitution. The leader of the Opposition invited all Liberals to support such a motion; nine did not do so, four of whom are today ministers: Richard French, John Ciaccia, Clifford Lincoln, Michel Gratton. Claude Ryan did not even think about sanctions.

In the current painful debate, Mr. Bourassa has declared that a free vote is out of the question. Thus the recalcitrant members and ministers, who reject the notwithstanding clause, have to submit to it or resign. However, Mr. Bourassa should accept accommodations. True, a minister cannot stand against cabinet solidarity and still be part of the government. But, given the importance of the issues at hand, and they strike at the heart as much as the mind of Quebecers, abstention should be tolerated for ministers. As for the members to whom their conscience dictates to vote against Bill 178, no sanctions should be imposed on them.

Why? For a very simple reason. These members and ministers are not opposed to the linguistic programme of their party; on the contrary, they demand its application. Rather, it is their government that has strayed away from party policy. How can they be censured to have believed for three years that Mr. Bourassa would not do what he is presently doing?

Increasingly, parties will have to make room for pluralism and dissident views on major issues. Language is one such issue and will remain so for a long time. It is a matter of conscience that transcends partisan lines. Furthermore, deputies, while representing their electors, are not their hostages. That Alliance Quebec prompts the anglophone members to resign, that Bill Johnson (The Gazette) demands that they disassociate themselves from a party that has become the instrument of nationalist oppression (sic), nevertheless, they remain free to resist these ranting. The best interests of their community is neither in a forward escape nor in a disorderly retreat. That is especially so because the performance of these ministers is above average. Nobody is irreplaceable, but it would be a great pity that one or the other would leave before the end of their mandate.

As they feel abandoned, anglophones might fall to the temptation of having a party all to themselves. But this would isolate them even more; this is unthinkable. Convictions and passions have their place in politics. But so have realism, sound judgement, and adaptation to obstacles. The time is not ripe for the extreme solutions that frustration, always a bad advisor, creates.

One must be guarded against precipitated decisions and cynicism that debase oneself when emotions are raw. Without illusions, and without cheating, Messrs Lincoln, French, Ciaccia and Marx all have a role to play by Mr. Bourassa, and this is for the good of their community and for Quebec.

© 1999 for the translation, Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College