Quebeckers Push Debate On Language

Vote on French in schoolyards expected

THERE'S a French-Canadian rap group whose current hit song ``Je m'en souviens Bill 101'' (``I remember Bill 101'') praises the 1977 language legislation promoting the use of French in Quebec. The acclaim for the song reflects the enormous popularity of the bill among the province's large majority of Francophones.

Support could be especially strong now because of an extended dispute over the Meech Lake Accord - the agreement three years ago of 10 provincial premiers and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on a constitutional amendment defining Quebec as a ``distinct society.''

But because of Bill 101 and subsequent language legislation, about 150,000 Anglophones have left the province. They are still going, though at a less rapid rate.

Those departing usually feel there is more economic opportunity for them outside Quebec, notes Robert Keaton, president of Alliance Qu'ebec, an organization representing many of the 800,000 English-speakers still residing in the province. Quebec has 5.3 million French speakers.

Claude Ryan, minister of education and responsible for administering the language laws, maintains that ``the Anglophone minority is the best-treated minority in the world.''

David Birnbaum, a spokesman for Alliance Qu'ebec, describes the remark of Mr. Ryan as ``a tiresome old chestnut.'' He adds, ``It is not that Claude Ryan is wrong and that we [Anglophone Quebeckers] are a repressed minority. We are not. In fact, our lot in life is far superior to that of Francophone minorities outside of Quebec.''

What Mr. Birnbaum objects to is any suggestion that the government should treat minorities differently than the majority. The Alliance Qu'ebec, for example, would have preferred that the provincial Liberal government of Premier Robert Bourassa had let stand a Supreme Court ruling that a law prohibiting commercial signs in languages other than French violates the constitutional Charter of Rights.

Instead, Mr. Bourassa last year used the ``notwithstanding'' clause in the 1982 Canadian Constitution to pass Bill 178. The bill continues the ban on outside signs in English or languages other than French, though it permits them inside - ``notwithstanding'' this being contrary to the Charter of Rights.

Five merchants who refused to remove English signs had hearing dates set in court Monday. If found guilty, they could be fined up to $575 Canadian for individuals, $1,150 for companies.

By now, though, most Quebec Anglophones have adjusted to the greater need to use and understand French, particularly in Montreal, where nearly half of Quebec's population lives. Bilingualism among Anglophones in the province has risen from about 20 percent in 1970 to 60 percent today.

Since Bill 101 requires that the language of work be French in companies with more than 100 employees, bilingualism is essential for many Anglophones.

However, across the province, the proportion of Francophones who are bilingual has declined.

Shrinking French-Canadian bilingualism concerns the government for commercial reasons. Quebec is counting on the Canadian free-trade agreement with the English-speaking United States to boost provincial economic prospects. Quebec companies need bilingual employees.

The latest language irritant has been a proposal that, in the French-language schools of the Roman Catholic School Board of Montreal, students be prohibited from speaking any language other than French in the playgrounds as well as in classes.

Education Minister Ryan maintains any such regulation of schoolyard language would be wrong. The school board is expected to issue a ruling any day.

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