Language of Signs
If Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa is willing to take it, the Supreme Court of Canada has given him sound guidance on the language of commercial signs in his province. The court has ruled that Bill 101, by prohibiting Quebeckers to post signs in languages other than French, violates their freedom of expression. At the same time, it accepts Quebec's objective of giving the province a French face, and says it is permissible to "require the prominent display of the French language, even its marked predominance. "
This is essentially what the Quebec Liberal Party adopted as its platform before the 1985 provincial election. Polls have shown that most Quebeckers would accept this compromise. Premier Bourassa, who faces dissension whichever way he turns, should amend Bill 101 to permit bilingual signs where French is given prominence.
In an interesting touch, the court did not have to rely on the constitutional Charter of Rights to shoot down the offending section. Yes, the guarantee of free expression in the charter makes such violations unconstitutional, but the former Parti Québécois government had invoked the "notwithstanding" clause in the charter to exempt Bill 101 from its protections. The clause, which must be renewed every five years to remain in force, will not expire until February.
Instead, the court turned to Quebec's own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, an admirable piece of law which also guarantees freedom of expression. Quebec's national assembly could, if it wished, override that charter as well, since it is a provincial law. Happily, the government has so far chosen to give the charter precedence over Bill 101, and the Supreme Court has ruled that there are insufficient grounds to challenge that precedence. "In the opinion of this court, " the judges declared unanimously (including those from Quebec who heard the case), "it has not been demonstrated that prohibition of any language other than French [ ] is necessary to the defence and enhancement of the status of the French language in Quebec. "
(It thus upheld the appeal of five Montreal-area businesses which fought for bilingual signs, but rejected the appeal of stationer Allan Singer, who sought to post signs in English only)
The court's reliance on Quebec's own charter may take some of the wind out of Mr. Bourassa's opponents. It is one thing to rail against the intrusion of a national Charter of Rights which was adopted in 1982 without Quebec's approval. It is another to condemn a national court for using Quebec's own law to identify Bill 101's egregious excesses. The PQ is certain to protest in any case, but it has lost some political ammunition.
Mr. Bourassa says he will announce his plan of action on Sunday. This is no time for clever attempts to evade the ruling, by allowing bilingual signs only when indoors or in certain parts of the province. It is no time to pass a law giving Bill 101 precedence over the provincial charter, or to renew the "notwithstanding" exemption from the constitutional charter. That would amount to a repudiation of Quebec's English-speaking minority; it might lead to the resignations of English-speaking ministers in Mr. Bourassa's cabinet; it would certainly antagonize many Canadians who have so far supported the Meech Lake constitutional accord. And it would offend many French-speaking Quebeckers who believe strongly in a code of basic civil rights.
These are not easy days for Mr. Bourassa. But his best and most honorable way out is to follow through on his party's position to assure Quebeckers that French will remain, and predominate, on all signs and to restore to minority-language groups the freedom to use their languages as well.
© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College