In what many have called the largest gathering against discriminatory Quebec acts that curtail civil rights since Premier Bourassa used the notwithstanding clause in 1989,some 800 people crowded into the downtown Delta Hotel in order to attend a conference staged by CRITIQ ( Canadian Rights in Quebec.) CRITIQ is a broad alliance of anglophones, allophones and francophones dedicated to ensuring that constitutionally enshrined Canadian civil rights - particularly with respect to language - are respected in Quebec.
It was clear from the speakers, and the attendees during question period, that there is a broad Montreal stirring across ethnic lines fed up with the Marois' government’s overt assault on the province’s ethnic and linguistic minorities. Five of the city’s better-known activists spoke to the crowd about the urgency of defending their rights.
“The few cannot continue to fight for the many alone forever,” said Beryl Wajsman, publisher of the Métropolitain and President of the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal. “Our individual rights are being challenged and now it’s our duty to rise up together and ensure that they are protected and respected. This is one law too far."
During a short and passionate ten-minute address, Wajsman described the Marois’ government’s proposed new Bill 14 legislation as nothing less than a direct assault on the legal and constitutional rights of all Québecers. Originally intended to strengthen Québec’s already onerous language law better known as Bill 101, Wajsman said the new bill compromises minority rights protected in the Canadian and Quebec Charters and in UN Covenants by replacing the status of "ethnic minorities" which are protected, to "cultural communities" which are undefined in law. Besides extending Bill 101's language dictums to even smaller businesses, Wajsman explained that Bill 14 annuls the PQ's longstanding commitment to respecting local democracy by promising to strip the bilingual status of many Québec cities, towns and municipalities even the 89 who have passed resolutions wanting to keep it. Wajsman also pointed out that francophones face prejudice because the bill would make it nearly impossible for French students to get into English CEGEPs. And due process may be thrown to the wind as the Bill would give language inspectors unprecedented rights of seizure and prosecution without notice.
Wajsman saluted Gary Shapiro the founder and chair of CRITiQ, for bringing together so many centres of "energy and daring to tear down the walls of resistance." He also praised the efforts of councilor Marvin Rotrand, who convinced city council to accept his resolution supporting Pierrefonds-Roxboro in its bid to remain bilingual. Wajsman also announced that Rotrand would soon be drafting a broader resolution at his request and would work with him to assure its passage. That resolution would see Montreal's council voting support for all Quebec municipalities that seek to retain bilingual services.
Journalist Barbara Kay also stirred the audience with a number of opinions and observations about the Marois' government’s new law. Following Kay’s assertion that the province’s non=francophones were originally willing to put up with Québec’s onerous Bill 101 in order to maintain social peace within a province many of them have called ‘home’ for centuries, she now believes the present government is once again moving the goal posts further, much further down the field. In a province where the great majority (over 80% ) of Québec’s non-francophones are bilingual and work in French, according to the OQLF's own figures, Kay told her audience that the Maoris' government is demonstrating a serious level of anglophobia.
“They can’t stand to hear your voice,” she said. “They can’t stand to see your language.” Kay then went on to deconstruct several elements of the so-called nationalist narrative as nothing less than a revisionist history which did not match the city’s realities. “Montreal is not a French city”, said Kay. “It’s always been a bilingual city.”
Kay described a world in which Québec’s nationalist politics have reduced the city’s non-francophone population to little more than a shadow of its former self. Aside from condemning the Marois' government’s plans to restrict English education for the province’s Francophone students, Kay said the government should recognize how the use and command of at least two to three languages is a good thing and not yet another example of the creeping, genteel, ethnocide defined by the St. Jean Baptiste Society and several of the leading ministers within the Maoris government’s cabinet.
“If we lose this battle, more people will move away from Québec,” said Kay. “If we lose this battle, we could be losing the war.”
As the city’s leading legal activist on language rights, lawyer Brent Tyler once again repeated the elementary truth that lies at the center of every one of his arguments against Quebec’s onerous language laws. While he believes the Marois' government’s new bill is, in his words, “…obnoxious, mean and divisive...” legislation, he was also quick to say that the root of the problem was the law itself. Three decades after the Parti Québecois originally introduced their infamous Bill 101, Tyler described Québec as a stricken province in which ethnocentric nationalism has infected every part of Québec’s body politic including its judiciary.
“Some people describe us as ‘angry’, but maybe it’s time they realize that there’s a lot to be angry about,” said Tyler. “After all, that’s part of the cost of living here.”
Following a brief description of what both Rosa Parks and Canada’s Ann Flagstaff did to fight for their rights, Tyler reminded his audience that their fight was all about equal rights for everybody no matter who they were, where they came from, what color they were and in Québec’s particular situation, what language they speak.
“We are not being treated as free and equal citizens,” said Tyler. “Freedom and equality must be a part of every person who lives in Québec.” Tyler later told the media that last year we saw an "Arab Spring" and maybe this year we'll see a "Maple Spring."
According to respected Montreal strategic consultant Michel David, the new language fight could end up costing Montreal its quality of life which is also its greatest asset. Aside from a disturbing number of statistics which continue to illustrate the city’s ongoing decline, David said the city’s growing poverty gap is the major factor which now defines the city’s economy. Following decades of high taxes, innumerable government regulations and the city’s ongoing language issues, Montreal is now in last place out of all of North America’s 22 cities with more than 2 Million residents.
“People left,” said David. “The creators of this city’s wealth have left a long time ago.”
David still believes the city’s decline could be easily stopped if the government demonstrated the political will required to develop some intelligent policies to re-animate the city’s hobbled economy. Aside from opening the city to Montreal’s entrepreneurs, imposing some intelligent tax policies, the government should grant its citizens and residents the freedom to speak whatever language they want while they’re doing business in this city. Failing any progress on these issues, David suggests that Montreal as a city/state or new province would not be technically, as opposed to politically, difficult to achieve.
“Why can’t this government make sure every child speaks at least two languages when they leave primary school and at least three when they leave secondary school?” asked David. “Why can’t they recognize that speaking several languages is an asset?”
In his summation of the Conference, former Equality Party MNA Robert Libman said the general theme was, “Enough is enough!”
As one of the founders of the Equality Party that was created to protest the then Liberal government’s language policies along with its ban on English language signs, Libman was surprised by the number of people who showed up at the protest.
“They’re tired of the big lie,” said Libman. “De Courcy (Québec Language Minister Diane De Courcy) isn’t the only one who knows this is a bilingual city.”
Many believe that CRITIQ is the broadest, most inclusive and most credible organization poised to lead a major wave of popular resistance against the Marois government’s policies. Activist attorney Richard Yufe, who moderated the evening, laid out the founding principles of the CRITIQ. He announced that there are several working groups within CRITIQ with places for everybody who wants to do something to express their frustration. Working committees already in action, Yufe explained, are already organizing mass emailings to CAQ MNAs to pressure them to vote down Bill 14, liasing with city councillors offering support to help passage of more city resolutions on bilingual status, contacting Ottawa to review this legislation, translating articles and communiques, writing letters to media and fundraising. Yufe made a strong appeal for more volunteers.
To learn more and contact CRITIQ to get involves you may go to CRITIQ.CA or its Facebook page.