Gwen and Wally's Sign
This picture shows both sides of the
"Lyon and Wallrus" business sign that
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.
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,
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
and Language Rights
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
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
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.