Something unpleasant is about to hit the fan in Ontario
Language rights in Ontario haven't been this controversial in Ontario since the heated debate that occured over the closing of the Hôpital Montfort.
This time, the subject of debate is even edgier. According to the Ottawa Sun, the council for the Township of Russell has officially voted 3 to 2 in favour of a by-law that will require all new business that are established in the township to post signs and advertise in both of Canada's official languages, with the tie-breaking vote coming from the Mayor Mr. Ken Hill.
The reaction from some Russell residents and merchants has been a furious one. A lawyer by the name of Howard Galganov promptly served the mayor with legal papers indicating that he intended to challenge the by-law, which he considers to be a violation of the Charter.
The website for the Russell Chamber of Commerce was quick to denounce the by-law even before it was adopted. One look at their site and it is clear that the language being used is intended to stir up emotion, in what already promises to be an emotionally charged debate.
The Chamber of Commerce website is rife with venom for Mayor Hill, and just littered with rhetoric about the Charter. They go so far as to suggest that "...we will show that we will not trade our rights away so a few politicians can score political points with a small minority of discord makers". I wonder who they mean when they refer to this small minority. According to the 2006 Census results, 6160 (44.85%) Russell township residents considered French as their "mother tongue", compared to 6810 (49.58) who marked down English. So it's not exactly like we're talking about a small community where no one speaks French.
Galganov and the Chamber of Commerce seem pretty convinced that they have a strong case, I'm not so sure at least for the moment. The Chamber of Commerce website refers to Vann Niagara Ltd. vs. Oakville, but this was a case where the municipality was refusing to allow third party advertisers, it had nothing to do with the language of advertising.
Still, we should not forget that the Supreme Court did declare that Québec's language laws against advertising in English were declared unconstitutional and invalidated them. They only exist today because the Bourassa government elected to invoke the notwithstanding clause of the charter. Just the same, we are not talking about banning the use of English for advertising. In fact the right to express one's self in English would be restricted in no way. Unless I misunderstand the by-law in question (to be fair I have not read it yet), it simply means that businesses that only advertise in one language will now have to advertise in the other as well.
One thing's for sure, I am going to have to get my hands on a copy of this controversial by-law, and then I intend to do a little bit of legal research on my own, before I can decide whether or not it is likely to stand up to a Charter challenge.
Personally I'd say that Mayor Hill and his council are unnecessarily opening a can of worms, since French businesses are already free to advertise in the language of their choice, but if that is the way that he and the other elected representatives on the Township council feel is the best way of reflecting the township's bilingual characteristics, I personally don't see any harm in it. Needless to say, A LOT of people will feel differently.