March 2015

Court rules that French is still too fragile

By Marie-Sophie Marceau Lawyer

In a lengthy, 69-page ruling rendered on January 28, Justice Salvatore Mascia of the Court of Québec confirmed that the provincial government and courts remain justified in their efforts to protect the French language (Québec (Attorney General) v. 156158 Canada Inc. (Boulangerie Maxie's), 2015 QCCQ 354 (CanLII)).

The debate ensued as part of an action to dispute the fines issued to several Anglophone merchants who were in violation of the provisions of the Charter of the French Language. The merchants' defence aimed to attack the validity of the provisions on public signage and commercial advertising.

In Québec, French is the official language of commerce and business, and companies must have a French-language name and French-language signage. However, merchants may advertise in several languages including English, so long as the French-language information is predominant. These regulations were established by the government and validated by the courts in a context where it seemed that the survival of the French language was threatened. In response to the accusations against them, the merchants who contravened the Charter essentially argued that the situation of the French language had significantly improved to the point that language protections were no longer justified and, in fact, violated their freedom of expression.

Justice Mascia concluded that the defendants had failed to prove that the condition of the French language had sufficiently evolved and consequently upheld the fines. For example, in his ruling, Justice Mascia noted that French remains vulnerable in North America and could be compromised by Québec's low birthrate and the growing number of allophone immigrants. The ruling also sent a clear message by affirming that: "In promoting the French language via public signage legislation, the law does not injure or promote a negative image of the English community."

The counsel for the defendants has promised to appeal the ruling and maintains that the French language is not vulnerable to the point of justifying the limitation of other fundamental rights, namely freedom of expression. As the debate simmers, it is important to keep in mind that the predominance of the French language on public signage continues to be required.