Quebec's China Syndrome: A snitch society gnaws at the body of a just society

Par Beryl Wajsman le 3 mars 2014

Back in the 1970s amidst the fear and panic over nuclear power plants, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas starred in a move set in California called “The China Syndrome.” The story centred on a nuclear power plant gone wrong, and the hypothesis was that if the nuclear rods went out of their cylinders they could melt through the earth’s core all the way to China. 

Last week’s attack by the OQLF on a store  in Chelsea, Quebec called “Delilah in the Parc” raises the spectre of a different kind of China Syndrome. The syndrome of state censorship of public media and communication.

The Delilah stores are located in Ottawa and right across the river in Quebec. The great affront to OQLF sensibilities was that the store put out news on its offerings on Facebook, and it did so in English. The OQLF claims that Facebook, as well as all social media, constitutes public advertising in the same way as websites and pamphlets. The OQLF spokesman even said he had jurisprudence backing up its position. But he failed to produce any. This case raises several troubling questions.

First, the language law is not supposed to apply to businesses under 50 employees. Delilah has eight. Second, electronic media in the form of internet and social media are nowhere mentioned in our language rules and regulation as they did not exist when the laws were passed. Third, what happened to the humane “triage” system the government promised after the Pastagate embarrassment? But most important of all is the overwhelming policy question the Delilah episode raises. How far is Quebec ready to go?

Social media like Facebook has free expression as a central organizing principle. It is like a virtual, electronic Hyde Park corner. Everybody can pick up a soap box, stand up on it and have their say. You can see posts on Facebook in every language from Urdu to Russian to Chinese.

But the template of Facebook can be defined by the user. One can choose some seventy languages. Now this issue has not bothered any jurisdiction in the world except Quebec. Does the OQLF think it’s next step is to ask force all Quebecers to choose a French template in Quebec? But more seriously, by investigating a public forum and dictating content, the OQLF is clearly constricting free speech. And even giving it the benefit of the doubt that it only acts upon complaints, it is deeply troubling that no reasonable oversight stepped in and eliminated such a frivolous complaint. The problem with complaints – throughout the Quebec government structure including SAAQ, and RevQue – is that they are all “dénonciations anonyme`- anonymous denunciations. It is a retrograde system. Since Magna Carta, all civilized systems of law have had two primordial organizing principles : the presumption of innocence and the right of everyone to face their accuser. Anonymous denunciations are nothing but an open door for snitches, usually exacting some measure of revenge against someone based on envy and hate. Jealousy replaces justice. It must be brought to an end. A snitch society gnaws like a cancer at the body of a just society. And protection of linguistic supremacy can never justifiably trump individual liberty of expression.

But the more overriding preoccupation for all of us should be examining the question of Quebec heading down the road of its own China Syndrome. Who can forget that countless times over the past decade when the government of Communist China has shut down the internet or blocked specific sites because of content. Reasonable people can ask, if the behavior of the OQLF in the Delilah case and in the Provocateur Communication case of a few weeks ago is any indication, is Quebec contemplating Chinese tactics. It is after all the logical extension of its explanations in the Delilah case. 

The Chinese character for crisis is composed of two elements. One indicates danger, the other opportunity. We fail to see the opportunity, but the danger from the OQLF is clear.


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Beryl P. Wajsman

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