Bilingual Agitation In Canada

battleaxeOne of the biggest places where the fight over language seems to rage the strongest is in French Canada.  Montreal is a hotbed of language cavaliers who are intent on preserving French, much to the chagrin of city planners and residents.  It’s almost too much!  This excerpt from an article written back in the 80’s illustrates the problems that had come to fore:

Not all of the agitation has been verbal. This spring, for example, hooligans systematically went through a commercial district in the West End of Montreal (where many Anglophones live) and spray-painted all the English signs. The vandalism — similar to what had occurred in the suburban town of Mont Royal a few months before–elicited ambiguous comments from politicians. Some of them wondered whether those who had the temerity to post illegal signs could properly complain when they were defaced. Bourassa, for his part, suggested that Anglophones might have to consider accepting their reduced linguistic rights under the status quo to preserve “social peace.”

This cavalier attitude toward individual liberties is not a new phenomenon. Earlier in the year the Conseil de la langue francaise, a government body, announced plans to send language spies into stores to check up on merchants and clerks. Posing as ordinary shoppers, the spies were to determine whether the business people spoke the right language or made illegal sounds. An out-cry over the proposed scheme caused it to be abandoned, at least for the time being.

In another attempt to subordinate the rights of the individual to the needs of the majority, Quebec’s National Assembly last year passed a Cinema Act that severely restricts the freedom of theater owners to screen films in English. Intended to force distributors to dub movies in French, the legislation stipulates that unless prints of the French version of a film are made available in sufficient number, only one English print is to be allowed in the province. This too aroused strenuous protests, convincing the government to delay putting the act into effect.

Bourassa would prefer to turn Quebec’s attention from such divisive matters to what he considers his forte, the economy. But thanks to his opponents’ efforts, the language issue continues to dog him. In fact, his problems in this regard are likely to be exacerbated in the near future by a long-awaited ruling of the Canadian Supreme Court.

The case to be decided has to do with Law 101, specifically with the section of the law that makes English signs illegal. Several plaintiffs have challenged this on the grounds that it violates guarantees of freedom of expression contained in the Canadian Constitution’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Recently the Court of Appeals, Quebec’s highest tribunal, ruled unanimously that the provision was unconstitutional when applied to bilingual signs. Two of the five justices contended that even unilingual English signs were protected by the Constitution.

Waller, Harold M. “Linguistic liberty in Canada.” The New Leader 71.13 (1988)