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Last revised:
23 August 2000

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

The Solution of Mr. Bourassa
The True Face of Reality or a Myth for the Facade?
Benoît Lauzière,
Editorialist and Publisher of Le Devoir,
Le Devoir,
December 19, 1988.

After reflecting for three years, and well served by the Supreme Court that took the necessary time to answer the questions submitted to it, the Prime Minister of Quebec, Mr. Robert Bourassa, finally delivered to us his solution yesterday afternoon.

At the time of writing, we only know the main elements of his solution, as it is only today that the Bill will be tabled in the National Assembly. However, the press conference given by Mr. Bourassa delivers to us enough elements to be able to express some preliminary commentaries.

Does the situation of French in Quebec justify the prohibition, for non French-speaking Quebecers, of the use of languages other than French for commercial signs, despite the fact that the Supreme Court concluded that one could not limit reasonably this freedom that they considered fundamental? Yes for inside, but no for outside, says Mr. Bourassa.

The need for a clear preponderance of French, that the Supreme Court clearly supported, is inapplicable in practice for advertising outside, says the Prime Minister. To respect the spirit of the predominance of French, one must have, he argues, French unilingualism outside and bilingualism, including French, inside. Thus, he must use the notwithstanding clause which is included in the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights.

Otherwise, one suspects and it seems evident, there would be further claims made before the Supreme Court with the same arguments and probably the same answers provided. Fortunately, the "one that may be best and must do the most", as the Prime Minister defines himself, resisted the temptation that seduced him for a moment to avoid the notwithstanding clause, only it appears to buy himself some time.

We argued, last Saturday, that the future, and the survival of a French speaking Quebec did not so depend on this article of Bill 101 that touches on the face of Quebec, that one would have to use the derogatory clause as proposed in the National Assembly.

Our stand was taken because of he belief in our capacity to develop ourselves while restricting as little as possible the right of others to use their language on their storefront. All do not share our vision and our faith, that is the least that can be said. An example of this is provided by the analysis of our editor-in-chief, on the same page, and who represents a large current of opinion.

Was our Prime Minister too sensitive to the very strong demonstrations made to support the use of the ‘notwithstanding’ clause, and to the interesting political gains to be made from this: A little more for anglophones inside, for francophones, an untouched exterior, with the premium of the Parti Québécois having lost its only efficient weapon to win back power? We cannot honestly doubt the sincerity and the commitment of Mr. Bourassa to the cause of the French language in Quebec. However, we also cannot doubt his propensity to wish to have his cake and to eat it too as well as to imagine all kinds of ways out of situations.

Beyond the difficulties in applying his solution, and before we can assess partisan consequences on the one hand, and consequences for Quebec and Canada on the other hand, we should stop to consider a question that strikes at the heart of the debate: the true face of Quebec.

What will be the fruitfulness of the proposed solution from the point of view of the importance accorded to the purity of the face of Quebec to assure cultural and linguistic security? As Quebecers spend as much time inside of stores as outside, and that once they have passed the threshold they will be confronted by another situation, what will be left of the radical and prioritised importance of a uniform linguistic face? Many would say, and opponents of the proposed solution will not miss the opportunity, that we risk to slide from the true face of reality to a myth for the façade. This sends us back to the essence of the debate.

© For the translation, 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College