Canadian tongues wag over latest language rulings

Two recent Supreme Court rulings that strengthen the language rights of minorities in two of Canada's provinces may ironically turn out be a source of further friction between the country's already deeply divided French and English cultures.

Canadians who reject government-guaranteed language rights for french and English-speaking minorities have been angered by the decisions.

Coming only a few months before the planned spring referendum on independence for the Province of Quebec and with a national election under way, the rulings ensure that the issue of minority language rights will continue to generate controversy.

The essence of the two Supreme Court rulings, delivered on the same day in December, is that minorities -- the French-speaking minority in Manitoba and the English in Quebec -- have the right to use their mother tongue in the courts and legislature of their home province.

The court struck down seven clauses of the Province of Quebec's Bill 101, the law by which Premier Rene Levesque's Parti Quebecois government sought to make the province officially French-speaking. Though the ruling leaves intact other provisions such as those requiring that French become the language of business and advertising, it was nonetheless seen as a major defeat for Mr. Levesque's government. Mr. Levesque called it a cruel and humiliating blow for the province.

The Supreme Court announcement forced the Quebec National Assembly into an all- night session to put through a bill that retroactively passed in English all laws passed since Bill 101 became law in August 1977.

In the Manitoba case, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision that an 1890 law making English the official language of the province abrogated Manitobans' rights to speak French in the courts.

The case was brought in 1976 by Georges Forest, a Winnipeg insurance agent who demanded he be issued a parking ticket in French. Though French speakers now make up only 5 percent of the province's population, the Manitoba government may have to spend an estimated $15 million to translate its laws into French.

Though the Manitoba decision upholds French language rights in one province, Premier Levesque will be concentrating only on the way the Suprme Court has enshrined the language rights of the English-speaking minority in Quebec.

In the period before the province's referendum on independence this spring, Mr. Levesque will seek to exploit the ruling, which he sees as another example of Canada's national government denying Quebecers their cultural sovereignty.

Some observers go so far as to say Mr. Levesque's pro-independence government deliberately included provisions of questionable constitutionality in Bill 101. This, in order to provide just such ammunition to bolster its arguments for an independent status for the province.

Mr. Levesque admits he knew when the law was passed that parts of it might be struck down by the courts. "We decided to take the risk in the interest of protecting the dignity of our majority," he said.

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