Quebec clashes over sign language

The language squabble in Quebec may be a political issue, but in the end it is very much a business issue. The problems in the French-speaking province have to do with the language of signs. Since 1977, the law has been explicit, all signs in French, not a word in English. Italian and Chinese are tolerated in restaurant signs, but no English please, we're French.

The old rules, brought in by the separatist Parti Qu'eb'ecois government, were upset by a Supreme Court ruling last week. It said prohibiting English was against not just Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but also contravened the provincial charter Quebec adopted.

A Montreal shopkeeper named Allan Singer was one of those who started all this by going to court to fight for his right to have his sign in English only. He lost.

The Supreme Court said the law requiring French in signs was not oppressive; banning signs totally in English signs was fine with the court. What it objected to was the banning of English on a sign that included French.

If this seems like a lot of fuss over nothing, it is a big deal in Quebec, and indeed across Canada. But many business people in Montreal and other parts of Quebec are taking it all in their stride. They have lived with all-French signs outside their businesses for more than 10 years. The Supreme Court ruling is not going to change that, because the provincial government overruled it.

Robert Bourassa, Quebec's premier, overruled the Supreme Court decision and proposed legislation allowing French-only signs outside, but bilingual signs inside. Quebec is allowed to overrule laws under a special clause in Canada's constitution. Mr. Bourassa's sign remedy, which became law last Thursday, is a compromise that will probably keep few happy except the people in business who are affected by the law.

``It is really a step forward because before it was French only,'' said an English-speaking Quebec shopkeeper who asked that she not be identified. People posting bilingual or English-only signs have had their windows smashed in the past year.

``How are they going to be able to tell you whether a sign is inside or out? If you can read the sign inside the store from the street, who cares?''

A group representing French-speaking business people says it welcomes the new rule and supports the all-French rule for outdoor signs. ``We must preserve the French face of Quebec,'' says Marcel Lavoie of the Chambre de Commerce de Montreal, a body representing 8,000 business people and 1,700 Montreal companies. And Mr. Lavoie says that although his group approves of the concession to English on signs inside stores and other businesses, there have to be rules. ``French must be dominant on those inside signs. And the customer must be served in French.''

The phrase ``French-Face'' of Quebec is what is behind the rules prohibiting businesses from using whatever language they like. It is the code word that means the only way to preserve French is to suppress English. But in North America, English is never very far away.

``Anything that becomes bilingual is a threat to the French language,'' says Louis Laberge, the president of the Quebec Federation of Labor, who is against the compromise of putting English as well as French on signs inside stores. ``We're submerged by English, television, newspapers, radio. If there is any more English,'' he says, ``we won't be able to work in French.''

At one stage Mr. Laberge, an important political figure in Quebec, threatened a general strike over the issue. He has backed off, but still demands Bourassa back off from changing the all-French sign rule.

Even the French sign rule doesn't always work. Business people have sometimes broken the law and gotten away with it. And both English and French-speaking businesses find words that look the same in English as they do in the French; or they register an English proper name as the title of their business and get around the law that way. Though a core of English-speaking business people complains - bolstered by the opinion leaders in the English-speaking community - most, like the woman shopkeeper quoted above, just get on with business.

Quebec's French-speaking elite, the politicians, labor leaders, and journalists are convinced that French-speaking Quebec is about to be swallowed up in an English-speaking sea. As long as they think that way, the language of business here is going to be French to preserve the French-speaking face of Quebec.

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