The Métropolitain

M. Couillard, time to end the suppression of expression

Par Beryl Wajsman le 9 juillet 2015

The Couillard administration is failing in its promise to restore the dignity of all citizens on minority rights and constitutional protection of language. This failure will inevitably harm economic recovery as surely as the policies of the Marois government did. Appeasement of language extremists for political expediency, impotence or unwillingness to reign in the OQLF and the tactic of changing rule and regulation to thwart judicial decisions, is making Quebec look like nothing other than a banana republic.

We yearn for investors from outside Quebec to invest here. We know that foreign investment is critical to job creation and to increased bank credits for small business. So forgive our astonishment at last week's news that the Couillard government declared its intention to change the language law to force major retailers like Best Buy and Canadian Tire to add French descriptors to their names on storefronts even though trademarked names are protected from 101 not only because trademarks are governed by federal law, but because 101 itself excluded them from the law's reach. 

What makes this episode so troubling is that it is the first time when we cannot merely criticize the Couillard government for not curbing OQLF excesses. This time, it is Couillard himself issuing the orders. One can just imagine the joy in international boardrooms about doing business here.

The Couillard government's record on language has been troubling indeed. It may not have had a "Pastagate" yet, but in some respects it is worse. It has a clear problem with protecting us from the suppression of expression.

Late last fall, Williams-Sonoma, Urban Outfitters, and Club Monaco blocked its websites in Quebec because they didn't comply with the language laws. After the Marois legacy of "Pastagate," "Spoongate" and all the other little "gates" we expected this government to stop the madness. It has failed.

The OQLF acted on complaints that the websites of these global corporations were not bilingual so it contacted them and ordered them to comply by having a French version. The retailers' response? They simply decided to block access to purchasing for Quebecers instead of spending the money. One wonders if the major retailing giants targeted by Couillard's demands on signs will end expansion plans as their response.

The bullying needs to stop. Not only because it is right to stop it, but because we can't afford anymore economic contraction. In 2014 Quebec lost over 100,000 jobs while the rest of Canada created over 200,000. Williams-Sonoma made it quite clear. It operates in 87 countries and has never faced such a problem. It is not about to start creating a corporate precedent of submission here in Quebec. A market of eight million does not frighten a global company.

But it is not all about jobs and the economy. This government seems to have a blind spot on freedom of expression even when it comes to the press. We first raised the alarm at the plight of The Pontiac Journal facing OQLF demands that it segregate - yes segregate - English and French content in its pages. Yet after weeks of articles and demonstrations, this government has not uttered a word on this first intrusion by the language police into limiting freedom of the press.

We have heard the apologists declare that Couillard must protect his flank against the nationalists. But that excuse flies in the face of the facts. One of the reasons Marois was so resoundingly defeated was precisely because Couillard was unequivocal on the rights issues during the campaign. Even francophones are tired of the culture wars. They want expanded opportunity too. But it seems that once someone gains power, they attempt to pander to votes even at the cost of principle.

This government demonstrated this troubling trend just ten days ago on a non-language issue but one directly related to free expression. The same day that the Couillard government tabled its bill outlawing face-coverings in certain areas of public service, it also tabled Bill 59 as a reaction to fears that Muslims would suffer some form of backlash. The Bill would limit expression by allowing Quebec's Human Rights Commission to decide what constitutes hate speech whose purveyors would then face punitive penalties. 

On broad principle, freedom of speech must never be limited short of direct and overt incitement to violence. As civil rights attorney Julius Grey stated in reaction to Bill 59, " The essence of free speech is to allow the expression of opinions that would be abhorrent to many." In practice, leaving decisions on issues of freedom to bureaucrats suggests two levels of citizenship on fundamental rights. One level for all of us, another for state agents who can limit our rights. 

At the federal level we have already seen how our national human rights legislation was manipulated by extremists to stifle legitimate criticism. Thankfully, the provisions that allowed bureaucrats to decide on hate speech in federal legislation - the infamous and unfortunate section 13 - was finally repealed by the Harper administration. It is ludicrous that Quebec is now going down the same road that was so disastrous - and so restrictive of free speech - nationally. 

Freedom is indivisible. And we should not cede our natural rights to agents of the state. They don't know what is best for us. They don't even know what is best for themselves other than the acquisition and aggrandizement of their power over the people. 

The argument that restrictions bring social peace is not legitimate. Social peace is not a legitimate goal if it is the sole aim of a society. Social justice is however. And a just society does not limit free speech no matter how distasteful that speech is. Nor does it limit the language of that speech whether in commerce or in the press. It is the free battleground of ideas that must rule.

Every time a majority Liberal government is elected we tend to become a bit lethargic. We tend to assume a “We’re alright Jack” attitude. Well, things don’t always work that way. We need to assure that this government brings the suppression of expression to an end. And we should be satisfied with nothing less.