Canadian court ruling could revive language strife in Quebec

The huge English billboard on the truck parked downtown reads: ``Bill 101 - Fascist; Everyone - Fight Back Now.'' It's an indication of a long-standing language dispute in Quebec, a province of about 5.4 million Francophones, 800,000 Anglophones, and a few hundred thousand with other mother tongues. Bill 101, passed in 1977 by the former provincial Parti Qu'eb'ecois government and dubbed the ``Charter of the French Language,'' includes a provision requiring French only on commercial signs.

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court of Canada is expected to uphold lower-court decisions that say this provision violates the freedom-of-expression guarantees in the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms. If so, Quebec businessmen could use bilingual French-English signs.

There is widespread concern that the Supreme Court decision could revive language strife in this province.

``The language conflict can become nasty here,'' notes Guy Boutbillier, president of the Mouvement pour un Qu'ebec Fran,cais. This movement is an umbrella organization dedicated to the promotion of the French language in Quebec.

It would not surprise observers here if the windows of some stores displaying English signs were broken by Francophone extremists. A few such signs have already been spray-painted.

The Liberal government of Premier Robert Bourassa has ordered extra S^uret'e du Qu'ebec to protect key ministers after the court ruling, a Quebec City newspaper has reported.

In late September, a bomb exploded at a Montreal-area office of Cultural Affairs Minister Lise Bacon, the minister responsible for administering Bill 101. And last winter a department store here was fire-bombed because it used English as well as French signs inside the store.

The provincial opposition party, Parti Qu'eb'ecois (PQ), has leaped on the anticipated court decision as an opportunity to revive both its depressed political fortunes and separatism in the province.

The signs question ``is not a symbolic issue but one which fundamentally affects the future of Quebeckers as a Francophone people,'' PQ House leader Guy Chevrette said in a letter to Premier Bourassa.

If the Supreme Court decision strikes down the sign provision, Mr. Bourassa is in a political dilemma. If he accepts such a ruling, it could be both politically damaging and enlarge French-Canadian fears of being overwhelmed by the English-speaking majority in Canada and the US.

``The great fear is that the situation of the French language is very fragile,'' said Mr. Boutbillier. ``Whomever wins this one is bound to win the next few rounds.''

Another possibility for Premier Bourassa is to use a provision in the 1982 Constitution, called the ``notwithstanding clause,'' to exempt Quebec from the freedom of expression aspect of the Charter of Freedoms on this sign question. That, however, would break a 1985 campaign promise to Quebec Anglophones.

It also would annoy Anglophone majorities in other provinces which have been moving, sometimes under federal pressure, to give Francophone minorities more services in their own language.

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