25 years later, parties remember Supreme Court battle over Bill 101

25 years after landmark ruling, those involved look back and consider the lessons learned since


Loi 101 devant la Cour suprême : les Anglos se souviennent

It’s been 25 years since the landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada in the case of Ford vs. Quebec.
Valerie Ford, owner of a small Pointe Claire wool shop, had taken on the mighty attorney general over the issue of bilingual commercial signs and, with the help of anglo rights group Alliance Quebec, won. So did the four other Montreal companies in the case: Brown’s Shoes, National Cheese, McKenna Florists and Masson Cleaners.
And so, history was made: In its 85-page judgment on Dec. 15, 1988, the court said it was perfectly legal to display signs in English in Quebec, and that preventing them, as the Charter of French Language did, was an unconstitutional breach of Canadians’ right to freedom of expression.
Action, reaction: Less than a week after the court rendered its decision, the Liberal government of premier Robert Bourassa amended Bill 101 with Bill 178, keeping French as the only language on outdoor “public signs, posters and commercial advertising,” as well as inside shopping centres and the public transit system. The only exceptions: “ethnic” or “foreign-language” signs indoors, subject to the approval of Office de la langue française; and advertisements carried in non-French media, such as The Gazette.
To bypass the Supreme Court’s green light on bilingualism, Bourassa invoked the notwithstanding clause of the Quebec and Canadian Charter of Rights.
By law, Bourassa’s move included the proviso that the new bill would have to be revisited five years hence. And so it was: In June 1993, the Liberals modified the language charter again with Bill 86, finally allowing bilingual outdoor signs as long as French was predominant. That’s exactly what the Supreme Court had recommended, and it’s the law Quebecers still live with today.
Twenty-five years ago, the court’s decision was jeered by Quebec nationalists and applauded by anglo rights activists. Since then, the bilingualism debate has periodically reared its head, from debates over the amount of English spoken in downtown stores to the Italian menu flash-in-the-pan called Pastagate.
Looking back to 1988, what do the interested parties remember of the time, what were the lessons learned, and how do they apply to Quebec’s latest controversial legislation, the proposed charter of values?
(Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.)
Peter Frangella, National Cheese Co.
In 1988, Peter Frangella was Quebec sales manager for National Cheese, the Canadian company his Italian immigrant father had founded in Toronto in 1960. They’d branched out to Quebec in 1964 with a plant in Montreal North, then moved to Salley St. in LaSalle. There, they had two outdoor signs: one in English that faced the street and one the same size in French — La Cie. de Fromage Nationale — that faced the parking lot on the side, which was actually the main entrance. The Frangellas sold the business in 2004 to Arla Foods, and that’s what it’s known as today — or rather, Les Aliments Arla. The Frangellas now live in Toronto.
“We were happy we won, but then it kind of turned around when the premier changed the law,” Frangella recalled. “My dad said ‘Look, we live here, if that’s the law now, that’s fine.’ And I remember my dad going up and taking down the sign. I was coming back from a call at Steinberg’s (the now-defunct supermarket chain) and I remember him getting a ladder and going up on the stairs and taking it down. That was the end of that. It was his company name, that’s what he started with when he came from Calabria in the 1950s. He started in the U.S., and there, he said, it didn’t matter what language you spoke, as long as you paid your taxes and respected the laws, you had that freedom. Here, he said, it’s not like we only put English on our signs — we put both, English and French — so it didn’t make sense, them wanting him to take it down.
“The way he saw it, when French children would walk by they’d see ‘Cheese’ and learn a new word, and vice versa, if an English boy or girl saw ‘Fromage,’ they’d figure it out. So it wasn’t harmful in any way; it was beneficial. The law to take down that sign was what upset him the most, but he took it down, and that was it. Eventually we realized that we all have to work together and communicate as best as possible, one way or another.”
Gisèle Aubé, Nettoyeur Masson
Even in east-end Montreal in the 1980s you could still find businesses with bilingual signs out front, and Nettoyeur et Tailleur Masson, aka Masson Tailor & Cleaners, was one of them. Gisèle Aubé didn’t own the place then; the original owner, a tailor named Gagné, sold in 1997 after four decades in business, and has since died. But just to show how the little company’s reputation for bilingual activism dies hard, she does remember the time a decade after the Supreme Court ruling, when the Office came to call. There’d been a complaint: The front door had stickers on it that said “Push” and “Poussez,” and you guessed it, the Push was bigger than the Poussez.
“A lady came and started taking pictures, because there’d been some kind of complaint,” Aubé recalled. “Well, the only thing in English was that ‘Push’ on the door. ‘Push’ was written bigger on the sticker because it doesn’t have as many letters as Pousser. There’s nothing else in English in the store. So I said to the lady, ‘C’mon, madame, a complaint? That’s not possible. What am I supposed to do about it?’ She said ‘Don’t move anything, don’t touch anything. I’ll just take some pictures to show what’s here.’ For me, it was just a stupid thing.” That was the last Aubé saw of the Office. “I never had any comeback,” she said. To this day, the sign is still in the door. “It’s been there 17 years now. Back then, I was worried I’d get a fine, get taken to court. I thought it was going to get so big. But before she left, the lady reassured me: ‘You have absolutely nothing to worry about. All you have is that one word that’s written bigger.’ It’s out of your control.”
Michael Brownstein, Brown’s Shoes
It was his father, Morty, who was outspoken about anglo rights in Quebec and led the national Brown’s Shoes retail chain during its battle with the government that led to the Supreme Court. But the patriarch died last May, and Michael Brownstein, who is president of the company, has only vague memories of the time the family firm was on the radar of language politics in Quebec. “I wasn’t so involved in that, so I don’t know that much about it,” he said from corporate headquarters in St-Laurent. “It was 25 years ago. I was a buyer. But I don’t really recall that much.”
Angie Ficara, Pinkerton (a.k.a. McKenna) Flowers
The old Fleurs McKenna Flowers shop on Côte-des-Neiges Rd., next to Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery’s main building, lives on today under a new name and ownership — and is still bilingual. The signs in the window say “Fleurs fraîches What a Bloom.” What a Bloom is the name of a Toronto-based national chain of flower shops; it opened at the site seven months ago. The old McKenna spirit (the family first started selling flowers in Montreal way back in 1851) also lives on in the west end on Sherbrooke St. W. at Vendôme, and has a bilingual flavour. The name on the florist shop there says Pinkerton, but the staff answer to the name of McKenna, since the owners inherited the client list of the original McKenna’s after it closed. “The sign says ‘Fleuriste Pinkerton Flowers,’ ” said Angie Ficara, who helps run the place for her husband, who bought it four years ago. “Whenever we pick up the line, we still say Pinkerton McKenna,” Ficara said between shipments of Christmas poinsettias. Beyond that, she’s oblivious to the language battle of yesteryear.
Robyn Grauer, Les Lainages du Petit Mouton, and Harry Schick, Swiss Vienna Bakery
Valerie Ford sold her wool shop in 1986, two years before the Supreme Court judgment, and eventually relocated to the United States, where many of her products — labelled in English only, which is partly what got her into trouble with the OLF — had come from. Ford left no forwarding address with her landlord and co-tenants in the Plaza Pointe-Claire mall. The current owner, Robyn Grauer, bought the business just three months ago and is too young to have any stories to tell of the old days; she was only seven years old in 1988. “It’s the same place ... and knock on wood, I haven’t had to deal with the OLF yet,” she said. “I don’t have any signs in the store, really, and anything I put up is bilingual. The sign outside is in French.” Across the hall, however, her neighbour Harry Schick has kept his Swiss Vienna Bakery decidedly international, OLF be damned. “We are bilingual and always have been,” said Schick, who long fought the government in court over his signs but was not part of the case that went to the Supreme Court. “Our sign says ‘Welcome’ in 45 languages,” said Schick, who was born in Belgium. “And my message to the OLF is on my window: ‘OLF, we’re here to stay.’ Like I said to the last inspector who came here, ‘I’ll make a deal with you: I’ll change all my signs immediately if you can tell me a francophone customer is three times better than an anglophone.”
Julius Grey, Grey Casgrain
Julius Grey wasn’t involved directly in Ford vs. Quebec, but as a prominent Montreal human rights and constitutional lawyer who fought aspects of Bill 101 in other cases (over schools and at the United Nations) with Alliance Quebec, he knows the issues very well, as well as the lessons learned. “What we learned (in 1988) was that even with laws that have a basis to them — as Bill 101 did, since it was supported by demographic data that showed that there was some danger to French — you can’t do anything you want in order to protect it. Ford vs. Quebec was the third in the trilogy (of decisions); the first in the 1970s was about the courts, the second was about the schools, and this was the third. And with this decision on signs, the three major defects of Bill 101 were cured, and the law itself became a workable one.” Proof, said Grey, that “when the courts and the legislature work together, you can change the situation and avoid the excesses ... The democratic process depends on the courts tempering populism.” He remembers being surprised and disappointed, however, when Bourassa went ahead and amended Bill 101 notwithstanding the Charter of Rights. “I fully expected that Mr. Bourassa would say ‘The courts have spoken and Quebecers should respect their decision.’ I was aghast when he said he would pass the law anyway.” Which brings us to the current government’s proposed Charter of Values, Grey added. “I think the courts will have a role, and I believe that they will strike down any attempt to take jobs away because of scarf, a turban or a kippah.” What the government will do after that is anyone’s guess.
Daniel Turp, Université de Montréal
Daniel Turp was on a teaching sabbatical in The Hague when he heard about the Supreme Court’s decision in 1988. He would go on a distinguished career in law and, as a Bloc Québécois MP from 1997 to 2000 and a PQ MNA from 2003 to 2008, in Quebec sovereigntist politics. “When I re-read the decision, what still strikes me is how significant a weight the Supreme Court had,” the constitutional law expert and professor said. “In the end the court practically determined the content of the legislation ... It indicated to legislators that the law would be compatible with the Charter of Rights if there were a predominance (of French on signs). We saw how, under the Charter, the court took on a quasi-legislative role.” Could it happen again today, with the PQ’s Charter of Values? Turp believes so. “We might say someday, just as we do with the Charter of the French Language, ‘You know, as it turns out, the Charter of Values wasn’t such a bad idea, it wasn’t such a bad law.’ Twenty-five years from now we might say it was a necessary and useful law. But do we want it to be the Supreme Court of Canada who defines what secularism in Quebec should look like, just as it did for the language of signs in Quebec? Shouldn’t it be up to the National Assembly to define that, not nine judges on the Supreme Court? My worry is that, once again, the Supreme Court will use the Charter of Rights to say what the law should be here in Quebec. And in that case, I believe we would be totally justified in using the notwithstanding clause again (to avoid that).”
Royal Orr, Alliance Quebec
His days as president of Alliance Quebec (1987 to 1989) are far behind him. For the past decade, Royal Orr has been involved in non-governmental agency work in Africa. But the bittersweet 1988 victory at the Supreme Court was a turning point in his life, and for Quebec’s anglophone community in general. “We were happy about the judgment, obviously,” Orr recalled between power outages and Internet crashes in an email from Tanzania, where he’s working on HIV and seniors projects with the McGill School of Nursing (he lives the rest of the year with his wife in the Eastern Townships town of Hatley). “But we had become very concerned about the premier (Robert Bourassa)’s unwillingness to say he would accept a judgment in favour of our Charter rights,” Orr wrote. “I had expressed my concerns to him directly, repeatedly, that the (federal-provincial) Meech Lake Accord would evaporate” — it did, in 1990 — “and that moderate voices on language issues in Quebec would be replaced by much more strident ones. It was a very unhappy day when, not unexpectedly but regrettably, the premier invoked the notwithstanding clause. Some years later (in 1993), Claude Ryan (the Liberal minister in charge of the French Language Charter) would bring in a solution (Bill 86) that traced exactly the path that our court case and victory had laid out, but (in the end) we had the near disaster of the sovereignty referendum (in 1995) and the fracturing of the leadership of the English-speaking community.”
TIMELINE: The road to bilingualism and the 1988 Supreme Court decision
1974: Robert Bourassa’s Liberal government introduces Bill 22, which makes French Quebec’s only official language. It obliges immigrants to send their children to French schools and compels the use of French on public signs.
1977: With the Parti Québécois now in power, the Charter of the French Language, Bill 101, passes in the National Assembly by a margin of 54 to 32.
1978: Stationer Allan Singer refuses order from language inspector to take down English-only sign in his N.D.G. shop. He begins civil action in Quebec Superior Court challenging the constitutionality of the language law.
1979: Ruling that parts of Bill 101 are unconstitutional, the Supreme Court of Canada says French and English should be given equal weight in the National Assembly and in Quebec’s courts, as well as in quasi-judicial tribunals and commissions.
1983: The Quebec Human Rights Commission says section of Bill 101 dealing with exterior commercial signs infringes on freedom of expression and should be abolished. Quebec introduces major amendments.
1984: The Supreme Court of Canada rules that it’s unconstitutional for Bill 101 to deny an English education to children of parents educated in English in any Canadian province. Five businesses launch a court challenge against Quebec’s sign law; anglo-rights group Alliance Quebec underwrites the fight by Brown’s Inc., McKenna Inc., Masson Tailors and Cleaners, National Cheese Co. Ltd. and wool-shop owner Valerie Ford.
1985: During fall election campaign, Bourassa promises to allow bilingual commercial signs.
1986: The new Liberal government passes Bill 58, granting amnesty for 1,500 students illegally attending English schools. The Quebec Court of Appeal rules in favour of the five merchants fighting commercial sign provisions of Bill 101 but rejects Singer’s claim.
1987: The Supreme Court hears arguments on cases involving Singer and the five Montreal merchants.
1988: More than 25,000 Montrealers take to the streets in a massive display of support for Bill 101. In December, the Supreme Court upholds the Quebec Court of Appeal’s decision on the five Montreal merchants, prompting Bourassa to invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and bring in new legislation, Bill 178. It bans English signs outdoors but allows them indoors.

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