Proposed law raises specter of language dispute in Quebec

``Vente - Sale.'' Signs containing English as well as French are becoming common in parts of Montreal. A year ago, a bilingual sign would have been taboo, and could have brought the store proprietor a court-imposed fine. The new signs have prompted discussion, but so far no major political storm in the province of Quebec.

However, the tenor of the discussion got a little hotter last month when the Liberal provincial government proposed legislation to revise Bill 101, the controversial law passed in 1977 by the then separatist Parti Qu'eb'ecois government. Bill 101 requires that all commercial signs be in French only and enhances the right of the province's Francophone majority to speak and write French at work.

``We are back on the battlefield,'' says Raymond Giroux, an editorial writer for Le Soleil, a French newspaper in Quebec City.

Prior to Bill 101 and an earlier language law, Quebec's Francophones were often required to speak and read English at work in companies dominated by Anglophones. Many commercial signs were only in English, ignoring French speakers. Francophone feelings about their language were so high that they sometimes ignored Anglophones when they spoke English. After passage of Bill 101, some 100,000 Anglophones and many corporate headquarters fled the province.

``The language issue [today] is not as passionate as it was,'' says Jean Martucci, president of the Conseil de la Langue Fran,caise, a research group that reports on the status of the language to the provincial government. ``But it is not dead.''

Pierre Marc Johnson, leader of the opposition Parti Qu'eb'ecois (PQ), complains that the new Liberal law would end the government's ``coercive dimension'' under Bill 101 - that procedures would become too complex for easy prosecution of offenders. But according to Lise Bacon, minister of cultural affairs, the proposed legislation, Bill 140, is meant only to streamline the bureaucracy managing the language law.

Bill 101 had already been challenged in part by rulings of the provincial Superior Court. One judge, looking at a case on bilingual signs, said the French-only provision violated the provincial charter of rights; another, examining a case involving unilingual signs, upheld the law.

The previous PQ government took the issue to the provincial Court of Appeal. A court decision is expected ``any day now,'' says Mr. Martucci.

In the meantime, the Commission de Protection de la Langue Fran,caise (Commission of Protection of the French Language) decided not to prosecute those using bilingual signs, and this resulted in the proliferation of such signs. The appeals court decision will not put an end to the language discussion, notes Martucci. The Liberal government will have to decide whether to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The government is in an awkward position. During the provincial election capmaign, Liberal leader Robert Bourassa promised the important Anglophone community in Montreal that a Liberal government would remove small irritants in the language bill. But the Liberals do not want to offend the French-speaking majority in Quebec, nor to revive the language issue for fear of scaring English-speaking businessmen. With the improved French-English relations of the last few years, some Anglophones and corporate headquarters have returned to the city.

Michael Goldbloom, head of the Alliance Quebec, a citizens group of Anglophones, says English-French relations in the province have never been better in history.

Public opinion polls among Francophones about bilingual signs give somewhat contradictory evidence. Mr. Giroux interprets the results as indicating that the French majority would prefer not to see a revival of the language dispute. Nor would they mind if Montreal's nearly 800,000 Anglophones had bilingual signs in the suburban communities where they are predominantly located. They would be reluctant, however, to see the use of bilingual signs end the French character of downtown Montreal.

Whether the renewed language debate will damage French-English relations more permanently remains to be seen. In the last year or so, Francophones have been flocking to English-language courses. A trend for Anglophones to learn French began even earlier.

In some modest degree, the ``two solitudes'' of the French and English cultures in language have been dissolving. Giroux hopes both sides will figure the current issues ``are not worth a fight.''

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