Justice to all
There is a quality of true grandeur in yesterday's Supreme Court ruling on Quebec's sign law.
The judgment is a model of clarity, logic, fairness and sensitivity. It transcends the noisy partisan clamor that has surrounded this subject for so long, and sets standards which Quebec should be proud to meet: the promotion of French, and affirmation of the right of non-francophones to express themselves publicly.
Indeed, the standards that the Supreme Court enunciates are first and foremost those of Quebec: in the immediate term, it is by virtue of Quebec's own charter of rights that the court has struck down the requirement for unilingual French public signs. That requirement, says the court, infringes the Quebec charter's guarantee of freedom of expression. It also constitutes discrimination on the basis of language, which the Quebec charter forbids.
The constitutional charter of rights also protects freedom of expression, of course. But the signs clause of Bill 101 is exempted from the constitutional charter until Feb. 1 next year by a "notwithstanding clause adopted by the Parti Québécois government.
Under either charter, the court's ruling reflects not only the letter of the law, but the finest spirit of this country's needs and aspirations. It affirms both Quebec's right and duty to protect the French language and the simultaneous duty to respect the rights of non-francophone citizens.
Every Quebecer - every Canadian - should reflect on the court's words about freedom of expression and language: "Language is so intimately related to the form and content of expression that there cannot be true freedom of expression . . . if one is prohibited from using the language of one's choice. Language . . . is . . . the means by which the individual expresses his or her personal identity and sense of individuality."
That is true for francophones and anglophones alike. And the court says freedom must apply not only to individual but also to commercial expression, which "plays a significant role in enabling individuals to make informed economic choices, an important aspect of individual Self-fulfilment and personal autonomy."
Then, however, in a long, sensitive and important passage, the court strongly upholds Quebec's right to legislate to protect and promote the French language.
The fundamental aim of the province's language policy, the court says, is "serious and legitimate." Justified measures include steps to protect the visage linguistique, Quebecs linguistic face. They can include "requiring the predominant display of the French language, even its marked predominance."
That is one of the reasons why, in its second language judgment yesterday, the court rejected stationer Allan Singer's contention that he should be free to post commercial signs in English only.
But acceptable measures to aid French do not include a ban on other languages. The court says flatly that such a ban is not needed to defend the French language, and it is utterly out of proportion to that goal, an unjustifiable discrimination and infringement of rights. The court's final reasoning is clear and impeccable:
"The predominant language (of Quebec) is French. This reality should be communicated to all citizens and non-citizens alike, irrespective of their mother tongue.
Voices of Intolerance
"But exclusivity for the French language ... does not reflect the reality of Quebec society."
So now the judges have done their work, and it is the turn of the politicians.
Already yesterday, some voices were urging Premier Bourassa to move now to legislate to preserve unilingual French signs. But that is the way of extremism and intolerance.
Even the Parti Quebecois, which created the French Language Charter, shied away from having it over-ride Quebec's charter of rights. How could a Liberal government, elected on a specific pledge to permit bilingual signs, break its word and move instead to curtail fundamental rights?
Indeed, in the light of the Supreme Court's exhaustive and compelling judgment, how could any self-respecting government even consider the kind of half-measures that Premier Bourassa has talked about in the past - permitting bilingual signs only inside stores, or only in certain districts?
Yesterday the premier implied that it will be difficult to solve the signs problem. He may feel it is politically difficult, but morally it is clear and simple.
The Supreme Court has just confirmed, forcefully and explicitly, the justice of what his own party's formal policy promises, what moderate persons in both language communities have long sought: to require the use of French on all signs but permit the use of other languages as well.
That is the course of fairness. It is the course prescribed by the most important laws we have. It is the right policy, the policy the premier should adopt.
© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College