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In Quebec, some take law as sign of discrimination

Some English-speakers are so incensed about restrictions on their language that they plan an ad campaign in the United States.

When Gwen Simpson and her husband Wally decided to open an antiques store here 15 years ago, they hit on a name that strikes most people as cute and clever.

"My middle name is Lyon and my husband is big and bald and kind of resembles a walrus," Simpson says. "So we just sort of put them together."

Hence the name, "The Lyon and the Wallrus."

But the signs the couple put up didn't sit well with Quebec's Commission for the Protection of the French Language, which enforces laws aimed at preserving Quebec's unique French culture. Even though the name of the store is written in both French and English, the commission says the signs are illegal because the French lettering isn't twice as big, as required by law.

That's ridiculous, says Simpson. "Since half my customer base is English-speaking, why shouldn't I be able to advertise in equal proportions in French and English?"

Next month, a judge will decide whether Simpson and her husband should have to pay a fine and redo their signs. If the ruling goes against them, their supporters vow to fight the case all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court.

Nor is this the only instance in which Quebec's English-speaking minority is challenging what many feel is the government's ham-handed effort to cram French language and culture down their throats.

A U.N. organization has been asked to determine if Quebec is violating international human rights law by denying thousands of children the right to be educated in the language of their choice.

Starting this week, at the peak of the Canadian tourist season, a TV ad campaign in parts of New York and New England will urge anyone planning a visit to Quebec to boycott stores that don't post signs in English as well as French.

And as of Sept. 1, passengers at Dulles airport near Washington, D.C., will be greeted by this billboard as they go through the security gates:

"BIENVENU _ Welcome to the Province of Quebec, where the unrestricted use of the English language is against the law. When visiting Quebec govern yourselves accordingly."

The TV and airport ad campaign may eventually spread to Florida, which gets hundreds of thousands of Canadian visitors every year.

"This is a civil rights movement we're fighting," says Howard Galganov, a Montreal radio talk show host who helped raise money for the ads. "What Americans should really understand is that 65 miles from their (northern) border lies an ethnocentric powder keg."

The growing militancy of some English-speakers comes as Quebec residents of all ethnic backgrounds seem to be getting along better than ever. Although some French speakers want Quebec to separate from the rest of Canada _ a referendum on the issue almost passed in 1995 _ few people think Quebec independence is either likely or desirable.

"Quebec is basically a nice place to live and the people here are basically happy," says Matthew Friedman, a Montreal freelance writer and college journalism instructor.

"The problem is that there is a sizable group on each side of the language divide who sees the language issue as a sort of transcendental, identity-type thing. There is no retreat, no surrender, absolutely no flexibility. These are the two voices that dominate the debate while the moderates who want to get together, drink beer and watch hockey _ which is most of us _ are excluded."

"People were terrified'

From the moment you set foot in Quebec, there is no mistaking that you are in a distinctly French enclave in the heart of North America.

The red and white traffic signs look familiar but they urge motorists to arret instead of stop. Ask to try on a dress in a Montreal department store and you'll be directed to the salles d'essayage instead of the fitting rooms. People commute to work on Le Metro and get their birthday cakes at la patisserie.

Especially in Montreal, Canada's second-largest city, you may notice other things as well. Some of the streets aren't all that clean. There's little new construction. Hundreds of vacant offices and storefronts have signs in their windows saying A Louer _ For Rent.

"Montreal is not a city that smells like a winner," says Galganov, the talk show host.

He and others trace Quebec's relatively high unemployment rate and sluggish economy to the 1977 Charter of the French Language, which made French the official tongue of government, courts, public schools and businesses. Though the goal was to stem the erosion of French culture, one result has been the exodus of dozens of corporate headquarters and more than 400,000 English-speaking residents over the past 20 years.

Galganov, who is Jewish, says so many of his relatives have left Quebec that the names of out-of-town visitors are no longer read at bar mitzvahs and weddings. "Everybody now is from out of town," he says.

Steve Dizgun, who has three Montreal bagel shops, saw his brother go to New York, his sister to New Jersey and most of his friends scatter elsewhere.

When the separatist-leaning Parti Quebecois took power in 1976, English-speaking "people were terrified," Dizgun recalls. "They scrambled to get their money out of here, to sell their property. The economy has never really recovered _ people don't want to invest here."

Today, more than 80 percent of the population is French, making Quebec the only place in North America where French-speakers are in the majority. Although French is an official language throughout Canada, francophones, as they are called here, say Quebec needed its own laws to assure the province's unique identity wasn't swallowed by an Anglo tide.

Before 1976, "French-speaking people were doubtful of themselves and under the impression they were doomed," says Gilles-Louis Racine, spokesman for the Office of the French Language. "One of the main reasons behind the language laws was to present a French image and to show the French that you don't have to speak in English to succeed."

In reality, most people in Quebec are bilingual, and thousands of young French Quebeckers seek fluency in English because it is the international language of business. A recent undercover survey in Montreal found that almost 100 percent of French speakers were quick to offer directions in English when asked, while English speakers were equally willing to give help in French.

"One thing that doesn't come across outside the province is that relations between (French and English) are very peaceful," says Patrica LaMarre, a professor of language education at the University of Montreal. "One of the ways that we manage to survive is that we don't confront each other on political issues on a day-to-day basis."

Challenging the charter

Nonetheless, a small but vocal group of English-speakers has become increasingly aggressive in challenging the Charter of the French Language.

Among their targets: the law requiring children from French-speaking and immigrant families to attend French public schools even if their parents want them educated in English.

The matter came to the fore in May when it was discovered that a 13-year-old English-speaking girl from Trinidad had been held back for years in a French school because she couldn't master the language. School officials refused her mother's plea that she be transferred to an English school.

Foul, cried the Equality Party, a small political organization. It has filed a complaint with the United Nations, alleging that Quebec's segregated school system violates an international agreement that bans discrimination against children based on language and other factors.

"Clearly, in Quebec, the best interests of children take second place to concerns about the French language," the Montreal Gazette said in an editorial.

Going to the United Nations has worked before, the Gazette noted. In 1993, the Quebec government was forced to change its French-only commercial sign law after the U.N. Commission on Human Rights said it infringed on freedom of expression.

Although highway billboards and public transport signs are still restricted to French, businesses today can post signs in English _ as long as the sign is also written in French and the French lettering is twice as large.

Racine, of the language office, says the rule makes sense because French is the native tongue of most Quebeckers. "If you put as much English as French, then there is a kind of upgrading of one language against the other," he says.

The commission has four inspectors, who patrol the province with cameras and measuring tapes checking out alleged violations. Known as "tongue troopers" or "language police," they generally target small businesses on what critics charge is the assumption that the owners will quickly and quietly cave in.

That isn't always the case. Dozens of English-speaking store owners have "sold" their signs to a group called CIT-CAN, whose founder, Don Donderi, discovered a way to circumvent the law.

"There's an exception that says you can put up a religious, humanitarian, political or charitable sign in any language so long as it's not-for-profit," says Donderi, a McGill University psychology professor. "Our group was not for profit and we had a political message: Get rid of all these sign laws."

In return for a modest payment, the store owner gets a sticker that says:

"This sign is the property of the CIT-CAN Foundation, a non-profit federal corporation to promote the multi-ethnic and multicultural character of Canada."

Gail Cantor, who runs a delicatessen and bakery, sold her window to CIT-CAN after the language police charged that signs and menu boards violated the law.

"Whatever was blatant we corrected, but I don't accept the 2-for-1 rule," Cantor says. "I was educated in English, French, Hebrew and Yiddish, and all the letters were the same size _ why should it be different now?"

Negative publicity

While protecting the French tongue may be a worthy goal, the language police generate so much negative publicity that they're often compared to the bumbling Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther fame.

A few years ago, inspectors made front page news when they ordered stores to pull kosher products just before Passover because they weren't labeled in French. That created such an uproar that the Quebec government exempted the items from the laws labeling requirements.

This summer, the mayor and several residents of Shawville, an English-speaking community in western Quebec, literally ran one inspector out of town after she began snapping pictures of commercial signs.

And Internet users worldwide have taken issue with attempts to shut down the Web site of a small Quebec photo studio because it was in English only.

"The language law has almost certainly had a net positive effect on the bilingualism of Quebec and the French character of Quebec," says Friedman, the freelancer who has written about the Internet controversy for Wired magazine. "But the law is so often enforced with this bloody, mind-numbing rigidity that it sort of beggars description."

Those fighting the laws are sometimes accused of being just as extreme.

But there's no doubt the laws raise passionate feelings.

"I think these laws are an excuse for racism or ethnic cleansing," says Dizgun, whose bagel shop was cited for having improper signs. "If you look at history, this is exactly how these things start."