Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom.

  It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.1

  

Images © Ted Wright

                              Outlawed Bilingual Signs:

 

                              Lyon and the Wallrus

 

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Gwen and Wally's Sign

This picture shows both sides of the "Lyon and Wallrus" business sign that belonged to Gwen and Wally Simpson (Lyon is Gwen's family name, Wallrus is a play on 'Wally'). They are  antiques dealers who live in Knowlton, a small town in Quebec. Their sign is completely and equally bilingual. Gwen and Wally were harassed for years by the language police because their sign violates the letter of Quebec's language law, which requires French to be twice as big as all other languages combined. Gwen and Wally were willing to be equally bilingual, but they wouldn't submit to being English-speaking second-class Canadians and they wouldn't make French "markedly predominant'" on their sign as required by the law. They refused to change the sign and were finally taken to court by the language police.

The Sign Law and the Courts

There are 80 such "sign law" cases now before the Courts in Quebec. The government is prosecuting outside signs, inside signs, invoices, purchase orders, menus and web sites where French and English are equally prominent. The defendants are small businessmen or tradesmen and they include English-speaking Canadians, French-speaking Canadians and immigrant Canadians, mostly from Montreal, but also from Quebec's rural regions: the Eastern Townships, southwestern Quebec, the Ottawa valley, and Quebec City. All the cases are being defended by Maître Brent Tyler, a Canadian civil-rights lawyer.

To understand the context of these prosecutions, we continue with Gwen and Wally's story. They challenged the validity of the sign law on the grounds that it infringed the right to freedom of expression and the right to equality, both of which are guaranteed under various articles of the Canadian and Quebec constitutions.

The Trial

At Gwen and Wally's trial, the government argued that Quebec could suppress the right to equality and freedom of expression  because there is an "escape clause" in the Canadian constitution which says that these rights can be suppressed within "reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society." In an earlier case decided in 1988 (the Ford case), the Supreme Court of Canada found that the French language was "vulnerable" in Quebec, and so allowed Quebec to impose "marked predominance" of French in commercial advertising even though it violated the right of freedom of expression and of equality. Against Gwen and Wally, the Quebec government argued that if the Supreme Court told them they could suppress language rights in 1988, they could certainly suppress them again in 1998.

The trial judge disagreed with the government. She wrote that she could not conclude, in 1998, that the French language was still vulnerable to the point that it justified the infringement of Charter rights that had been allowed by the Supreme Court. Gwen and Wally won their trial before the lower Court in Quebec.

The government’s lawyers appealed the decision. A higher  Quebec court overturned the trial judge's decision, found Gwen and Wally guilty, and fined them $500 plus court costs. The Canadian Supreme Court refused to review this decision. Gwen and Wally have still not paid the fine. The next step is up to Quebec. Quebec can send in the bailiffs and sell some of Gwen and Wally's property to collect the fine. If they do, Gwen and Wally's supporters will be there to buy it and give it back to them. 

The UN and Language Rights

In October 2003, Gwen and Wally filed a complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Committee pursuant to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In July 2005, their complaint was declared inadmissible on the grounds that the issue of the vulnerability of the French language had not been settled in the Canadian courts, and therefore their domestic remedies had not been exhausted.

However, the same UN Committee in the case of Gordon McIntyre  and others had declared in 1993 that the requirement of the exclusive use of French in the initial version of Bill 101 was a violation of the right to freedom of expression under the International Covenant. Within two months, the Quebec government was forced to back off and replaced the requirement for exclusive use of French by the requirement of marked predominance of French, but with a complete ban on other languages on billboards and in public transit advertising.

The legal argument in the pending prosecutions is straight-forward. In The Lyon & The Wallrus case, it was decided that the accused has the burden of proof to show that the situation of the French language is not so vulnerable as to justify the infringement of the rights and freedoms of people who speak another language.

Maître Tyler, defending sign owners against the government, had this comment: “Fine, if we have the burden, we will meet that burden.”

Maître Tyler will argue that the imposition of any language in any area of private commercial activity is a violation of Charter rights, a violation that is unreasonable and unjustified in a free and democratic society.

In November 2004, Maître Tyler filed an expert’s report by Jacques Henripin, Quebec’s most distinguished demographer, to the effect that the French language in Quebec is not vulnerable, and another report by demographer Calvin Veltman to the same effect.

Maître Tyler will argue that these reports show conclusively that the evidence before the Supreme Court in Ford in 1988 was out-dated, incomplete and in many respects, simply erroneous.

The French language is not vulnerable in Quebec. Eighty-two percent of the population of Quebec speak French as their mother tongue. This percentage has not changed, give or take a percentage point, for fifty years. During the same period, the number of mother tongue French-speaking Quebecers has increased by 2.4 million. With evidence like this, it is not possible to assert with any scientific credibility that the French language is vulnerable in Quebec. There is neither legal nor cultural justification for the Quebec government's restrictive language policy.

What's Happening Now

Experts have to be paid, court costs have to be met, and lawyers, like everyone else, have to live. A donation to CIT-CAN goes directly and without overhead into financial support for the publicity and the legal cases that seek to restore language rights in Quebec.  

 

 

 William Pitt the younger, British Prime minister 1783 -- 1801, 1804 - 1806.

 

 

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