The Brutish Temper Of Quebec's Times: Language, Commerce And The Law

By Beryl Wajsman on January 13, 2014

"I wrote the following several years ago - Dec. 15 2010 - when the OLF issued its original directive to over 160 government agencies to stop communicating with businesses in English. At the time only the CSST complied. It's not a new story, but given the recent report by CJAD's Anjelica Montgomery that the PQ plans to enforce the original directive, the situation is even more objectionable today than it was then. This is all about politics and power. The Liberals didn't want to take on the nationalist wing of its own  party. The PQ are trying to cobble together a strange and odious coalition of the regions and the left by trotting out the old bogeyman of "les autres" creating problems where none exist. It is remarkable that so many institutions are ready to commit civil disobedience on the "values" issue but not on language. On values the PQ went too far but have precedents in many democratic nations for laity in certain areas of the public square. On language they have no leg to stand on. The language legislation does not yet affect businesses with less than 50 employees. So this government is trying to do by regulation what it cannot do by legislation. It is not only violating Federal law but Quebec's own protections against language discrimination in our Charter (sec.10) as well as the UN Covenant on Religious, Ethnic and Linguistic Rights of 1992 which Quebec acquiesced to by reference. Further, whatever one's position on the language laws, laws cannot be retroactive. The acquired rights of all who were here when Bills 68 (Union National), 22 (Liberals) , and 101 (PQ) were passed must be respected. Acquired rights are an organizing principle of all civilized systems of law. When a government manifests blatant disregard for law and custom, citizens have the right to withdraw their consent and exercise non-compliance in their dealings with the state.~ BW

Events in society are related. Sometimes not directly. Sometimes they just reflect the temper of the times. But it is for that very reason that those who affect that temper, those who hold high office, must be held to account when they have compromised the public discourse.

I was struck by three events over the past week. I want to share them with you. Toward the end of last week a south shore family went to a local church that was preparing food baskets for the needy. They were sent away because they were not francophone and the baskets at that church were for francophones. They were directed to another church where anglophones were served. This in the season of “Suffer the little children to come unto me…”

Some eight days before this sad incident, Quebec culture minister Christine St-Pierre applauded a citizen who was being honored. The honor being bestowed on the woman the Minister was praising was being given for having reported some 200 businesses that had supposedly violated Quebec’s language laws. The Minister said that reporting was the duty of every citizen.

Two incidents. Seemingly unrelated. Yet how much they tell of our society. The former demonstrates the submission of compassion to linguistic hegemony. The latter would coerce linguistic reason to the whims of a snitch society.

Taken alone, one could dismiss either incident as not having any broad societal impact. But it is about the temper of our times you see, and in Quebec those times can take a nasty, brutish turn very quickly. One with lasting impact. And that is just what happened at the end of last week.

The CSST, Quebec’s workers safety board, formalized a decision that it will no longer communicate with Quebec employers in English. Only in French. It will continue to serve employees in English as well as out of province employers. It went so far in its pettiness and venality that it deleted the “press 9 for English” on it’s call-in phone system.

The reason for the action was that the OQLF, our language bureau, asked the CSST and 165 other agencies to comply more strictly with Quebec’s language law. Stricter language enforcement! We have truly entered the realm of the menacingly absurd. Pierre Turgeon, spokesman for the CSST, said the agency was just being a “good corporate citizen.” It is frightening to think what he considers constitutes citizenship.

Alarms should be raised over this action. It is the most serious assault in years to what has been relative linguistic peace. The action contravenes civil rights, threatens the security of workers and raises the question of just who makes policy in Quebec - elected officials or bureaucrats of the language police?

How are small businesspersons supposed to meet their obligations or offer appropriate protection to their workers if they can’t have the procedures explained? By what right do agencies of the government create two classes of citizens - by fiat - a violation not only of the federal Charter of Rights but of Quebec’s own Charter that guarantees equal application of law? And what does this decision mean to the protections afforded to minority citizens in Quebec by Canada’s Official Languages Act?

I asked three of Quebec’s leading constitutional and public law attorneys these questions and all three agreed that the CSST action violated rights on a number of levels. They were not sure of the best strategy for attacking this decision yet. I will continue to consult with them to see what advocacy can be brought to bear to reverse this egregious decision. And indeed to see if the OQLF was not exceeding its mandate in terms of its original request to government agencies.

I also wanted to find out what our elected government officials had to say. I had some of our reporters canvas some half-dozen MNAs from the east end of Montreal to the West Island. Most had their offices say they needed time to study the matter or to get instructions. One of our reporters however caught up with Premier Charest who was at a West Island event with MNA Geoff Kelley. When he posed the question of why this was done the Premier demurred to Kelley. Kelley’s answer was both sad and shocking. He said that agencies have had this power since the language laws were passed in 1977 and that since companies were supposed to work in French this was an extension of that policy meant to encourage that goal.

Mr. Kelley and his colleagues are wrong. It is one thing to encourage the use of French. It is quite another to coerce agencies of the state to prevent a broad number of citizens from having open access to public information. As bad as the language laws are, Rene Levesque never intended to create two classes of citizens. Rene Levesque never intended to compromise the safety of workers. Rene Levesque never intended to make it impossible for one group of citizens to comply with law. If these laws are now to be used as a club to beat minorities into submission and to pander to the nationalist extreme, the government should tell the people. Let us have a fair fight in the open. It is the only decent thing to do.

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Beryl P. Wajsman

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