Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Twenty Years Ago, Québec says Yes to Bilingual Signs

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Twenty years ago this June, the Québec government under Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa adopted legislation stipulating that all outdoor commercial signage should be in French, but lifted the ban on the presence of English and other languages.  The media often refers to this as the return of bilingual signs since the 1977 Charter of the French Language (also known as Bill 101) made French the only language allowed in outdoor commercial advertising.  While the issue was highly divisive throughout the 1980s and lead to court challenges, the decision in June 1993 by the ruling Liberals was significant enough to make international news.  It has since withstood the test of time (in the interests of full disclosure, I was chief of staff to Premier Bourassa from 1989-94).

To better comprehend the significance and magnitude of this language chapter, it is useful to go back in history.  The 1960s and 1970s were turbulent times in Québec as the Québec independence movement gained ground and became a legitimate and important component in consideringQuébec’s options for a future in or out of a federal Canada.  Closely associated with the debate on Québec independence was the conviction within nationalist circles that the use of the French language (concentrated in Québec and spoken by over 80 percent of Quebeckers) was in danger, and that legislative measures were needed to protect and defend French in various walks of life—education, public administration, language in the workplace, and outdoor commercial signs.

When a Liberal (federalist party) government decided to make French the only official language of Québec in 1974, the hope was that it would calm fears about the future of French.  The independentist Parti Québécois, however, came into power in 1976 promising to bring forward comprehensive language legislation.  Bill 101, or the Charter of the French language, was enacted in 1977.Quebec’s English minority reacted negatively to Bill 101 as a whole, calling it an attack on some of its fundamental and historic freedoms.  When the unilingual French signs provision came into effect in 1981, some English-speaking businesspeople refused to pay fines and challenged the law in the courts, citing Québec’s Charter of Rights.  By 1982, following a constitutional showdown with Québec over its objections, Canada adopted a constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which  became an additional tool in the court challenges.

In the late 1980s, the challenge to Bill 101 provisions on commercial signs had made its way successfully through Québec courts and was heard in the Supreme Court of Canada.  In November 1988, the Supreme Court agreed that the use of French in signs could be made obligatory, according to the Charter of the French Language, but it ruled that Quebec’s language legislation could not prevent the use of other languages.  In other words, no prohibition.  The ruling also added that French could be predominant.  This was a clear victory for advocates who believed that both the Québec and Canadian Charters of Rights and Freedoms had precedence over Québec’s Charter of the French Language sign provisions.

Clearly, the pro-French-only groups and those who favored Québec independence objected to this ruling and saw it as an infringement on Québec’s jurisdiction and its responsibility to protect the French language, and ultimately a threat to its identity.  Street protests followed.

Québec’s English minority was elated by the ruling, only to be bitterly disappointed when the Québec government brought in the “notwithstanding” clause (a constitutional provision of the Canadian Constitutional Charter, meant to be used sparingly), which suspended the application of the Supreme Court ruling for a period of five years.  The fact that the English-speaking community had been supportive of the Liberal government only added insult to injury.

By 1993, it was time to decide whether the “notwithstanding” clause would be renewed or removed.  The Liberal government—ever more aware of Québec’s international reputation and conscious of its liberal traditions—finally decided to bring in legislation to conform with the 1988 Supreme Court ruling.  It was the right thing to do.

It is now 20 years later, and the legislation has held through successive governments, including some led by the Parti Québécois.  In a curious way, both the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Charter of the French language were made to co-exist in some measure by the Supreme Court ruling—protecting  Québec’s French identity, yet respecting a fundamental right of expression. Closing this language chapter was clearly a landmark development (albeit 5 years late, due to the notwithstanding clause), and twenty years later, the wisdom of this decision still stands.  It is important that we remember.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Bill 101, Canada, French language, Quebec
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