Quebec premier goes for compromise on controversial language bill
Quebec's ``language police'' should soon have a new law to enforce. Premier Robert Bourassa intends to introduce into the provincial legislature today a bill that will outlaw signs not in French alone on the streets, but will allow bilingual signs inside buildings. He plans to push for passage by Thursday.
The legislation will modify Bill 101, the highly controversial 11-year-old law requiring that nearly all signs, posters, and commercial outdoor advertising in the pro vince be only in French.
On Dec. 15 the Supreme Court of Canada overturned these provisions, ruling that the province can order the use of French in such communications, but cannot ban the use of other languages along with French.
The decision left Mr. Bourassa in a political quandry. He chose a compromise which may satisfy the French-speaking majority in the province, though not a nationalist minority within that majority.
Jacques Parizeau, the leader of the separatist Parti Qu'eb'ecois, described the decision as ``an indisputable retreat'' from Bill 101's sign provisions. It would mean a return to the ``Fran,cais de fa,cade'' - facade French - that preceded Bill 101, he charged.
Bourassa's compromise will not please the 800,000 Anglophones among the province's 6.5 million people.
``It is a very dark day for Quebec,'' says Royal Orr, president of Alliance Quebec, a group representing English-speaking citizens of the province. He charges Bourassa and his Liberal government of being ``without principle, without the courage to do what is right.''
Mr. Orr agrees with the courts that French-only sign provisions violate freedom of expression rights.
Indeed, to pass the new law, Bourassa has to invoke so-called ``notwithstanding'' clauses exempting these provisions from the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms'' and a similar charter in the provincial constitution.
Observers hold that Bourassa's decision was based on a desire not to stir up Francophone nationalists sufficiently that they start breaking windows or throwing firebombs at retail stores displaying French-English signs.
The decision could also help Bourassa's government in provincial elections, probably in about a year.
However, his decision is not without political cost. Some seven Anglophones that are part of the Liberal Cabinet or are members of the provincial legislature were, at this writing, deciding whether to leave the Cabinet or the party.
However, as an Alliance Quebec official noted, Quebec Anglophones have nowhere else to go politically in provincial elections than the Liberals since the opposition Parti Qu'eb'ecois wants to separate the province from the rest of Canada.
The decision could also damage the prospects for approval of the Meech Lake constitutional accord, which spells out terms for Quebec's return to the Canadian constitutional fold. That accord, negotiated last year, needs unanimous approval by the 10 provinces and the federal government.
Two provincial premiers, those of New Brunswick and Manitoba, have expressed some reservations about the deal. When the Canadian Constitution was patriated from Britain and amended in 1982, Quebec refused to sign on.
The premier admitted that forbidding Anglophones to advertise in their own language outside stores is ``asking them to make an enormous concession.'' But he held that French-speaking Quebeckers are still too insecure about the future of their language to permit English on outdoor signs. Bourassa did not rule out rescinding the French-only provision in the future, but refused to commit himself to a date.
Today about half of Quebec's Anglophones can also get along in French, a much higher number than a decade ago. About 33 percent of Francophones are bilingual, a percentage that has been decreasing.