Behind Canada's language war

HISTORY and fear largely explain the desire of French-Canadians in Quebec to limit unfairly the use of English on outdoor signs in that predominantly Francophone province. Last week Premier Robert Bourassa introduced legislation to permit bilingual signs, with French predominant, inside a store or other commercial establishment but not outside. This was his response to a recent ruling by Canada's Supreme Court that Quebec's Bill 101, requiring signs, posters, and exterior advertising to be in French only, was unconstitutional. The premier used a special ``notwithstanding'' clause exempting such a provision from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of both the federal and provincial governments.

English-speaking Quebeckers - some 800,000 out of a provincial population of 6.5 million - see the action as an infringement on their freedom of expression, and they're right.

The controversy has deep roots. Most French-Canadians can trace their ancestors back to the 60,000 settlers in the colony of New France conquered by the British in 1759 and 1760. By the standards of the day, the English reign in Quebec was relatively benign. But the heritage of these events by the 1950s was a province in which Anglophones ran the business establishment, insisted that Francophones speak English at work, and in general looked at French-Canadians with a certain disdain.

This attitude eventually reaped its reward.

Francophone Quebeckers used their political strength in the 1950s and 1960s to launch a ``quiet revolution.'' They dramatically improved their education level and trimmed back the political power of the Roman Catholic church. They moved from small farms into the cities. Quebec became modern. French-Canadians, displaying great business and intellectual skills, have been winning the respect of Anglophones.

However, the political pendulum went too far. Bill 101, known as the Charter of the French Language, gave Francophones the right to speak their own language at work. It promoted the French language in other legitimate ways too. But it included those sign provisions that the courts have now struck down.

To many French-Canadians, however, Bill 101 is sacred. They are worried that their language and culture will be absorbed by the English-speaking majority in North America. Moreover, French-Canadians have an extraordinarily low birth rate today, even lower than that of West Germany. After the year 2000, their numbers will start to decline rapidly.

The sign law has most significance in greater Montreal, a place where English can be often heard on the streets. It is also a place where many Francophones speak English. But province-wide only about 32 percent of Francophones are bilingual. Nonetheless, French-Canadians feel their language is threatened.

However, a democracy requires compromise and limitations on government powers. Growing self-confidence and political maturity among French-Canadians should enable a Quebec government to permit bilingual signs on its streets at some point. Meanwhile, the province and its ``language police'' face some ridicule from foreigners. Great, cosmopolitan cities put no such language restraints on their citizens.

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