COLUMN ONE : A Sign of the Times in Quebec : In the assertively Francophone province, a deli must advertise itself outside as a 'charcuterie hebraique.' Some English speakers are fighting back at the borders of the law.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the facade of a nondescript self-storage warehouse in a Montreal suburb, the latest taunt in the everlasting test of wills between English and French has just been uttered, in the form of a workaday commercial sign.

"Self-Storage Units," reads the writing on this wall. "Entreposage Libre Service. Conterm."

Anywhere else in Canada, Conterm's bilingual sign would go unnoticed. But not in Quebec. This is a place where, by law, a delicatessen cannot call itself a deli, but only a "charcuterie hebraique." It is a province where French-speaking hard-liners hurled rocks through the windows of a business with the cheek to call itself "Nat's Auto Parts."

Since Conterm's is an outdoor commercial sign written both in English and French, it is precisely the sort of thing forbidden under Quebec's protection-of-French laws.

In 1977, the Quebec government passed Bill 101, a law designed to preserve the province as a vital reserve of French language in North America. Bill 101 set severe limits on which families could enroll their children in English-speaking schools and banned all signs written in any language but French.

The law offended Anglophones, collided with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and, after lengthy court battles, was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1988.

But no sooner had the law been struck from the books than the Quebec government seized upon a constitutional loophole and reinstated it.

The new sign ordinance was meant as a compromise. It still outlawed exterior commercial signs in any language but French, but gave shopkeepers the right to post indoor signs in other languages.

"You can't say grocery outside; you have to say epicerie, " complains Alain Dubuc, editorial page editor at Montreal's La Presse newspaper and an opponent of the French-only sign law. "But inside, you can say cabbage, as long as (the type) is smaller than chou (French for cabbage)."

Compromise or no, the sign-law reinstatement was one of the most provocative political acts in recent times in Canada. While it may not be the stuff of an Amnesty International letter-writing campaign, it has, within Canada, prompted Anglophones to dismiss Quebecers as a bunch of small-minded, minority-rights-abusing chauvinists.

In the common Anglo view, the sign law is the child of a blatant double standard. At the federal level, Canada is officially bilingual. As far west as Vancouver and as far north as Tuktoyaktuk, signs on all government property are written both in French and English.

In western Canada, where unilingual Francophones are about as easy to find as coconut palms, locals grudgingly tolerated these French signs, along with the French text on their cereal boxes and the French-speaking operators on government switchboards, until Quebec flouted the constitution and brought back its disagreeable sign law.

Then they snapped. Where was the justice, they wanted to know, in upholding the official use of French in English-speaking Canada when Quebec wasn't even willing to allow simple bilingual signs on its street corners?

Enter Donald Donderi, a psychology professor at Montreal's English-speaking McGill University and one of a small group of Quebec Anglophones who got the idea of hanging out the English-language warehouse sign as a legal test.

Donderi, who says he is comfortable speaking French but opposes the sign law on free-speech principles, says he conducted a study of relevant laws in 10 multilingual democracies and found none that forbade minority languages outright.

Few of the nations under study bother to restrict commercial language at all, Donderi says. Those that do, he says, merely require minority-language businesses to post majority-language translations of their signs.

"Ours is the most Draconian and repressive law that I know of," he concludes.

It isn't just English-rights activists like Donderi who oppose Quebec's ban on non-French outdoor signs. La Presse has editorialized against it. Mayors of Quebec towns near the New York, Vermont and New Hampshire borders have petitioned against it, arguing that French-only signs scare off dollar-laden tourists from the United States.

And a government advisory board, noting that driving can be dicey in a place where such warnings as "Freeway Ends--Stop Ahead" appear in French only, recommended exempting safety signs from the law. The board also suggested that the government permit English advertisements for films and shows whose original titles are in English.

Late last year, the governing Quebec Liberal Party announced that it would review the ban on non-French outdoor signs. The various opponents of the sign law enjoyed a few brief weeks of hope.

But in January, the Liberals said no changes were in the offing, since the timing would be unfortunate.

Indeed, this is not the best time to press for English-French rapprochement. Quebec is scheduled to hold a referendum on the possibility of sovereignty by the end of October. The rest of Canada has been struggling to come up with concessions that could keep Quebec in confederation while not undermining broad Canadian values.

One proposal, considered at a government-sponsored constitutional-reform conference earlier this month, is to declare Quebec a "distinct society" in the constitution.

But opponents regard this concession as a costly psychic giveaway for the country. They say that the award of special status to Quebec will only encourage la belle province to defile the Rights and Freedoms charter once more and trample English rights again and again.

Against this unhappy backdrop, Donderi and his colleagues chose provocation.

They had found what they believe is a loophole of their own, this one in the sign law itself: a provision that permits political or humanitarian groups to post non-French outdoor signs.

English rights are a political cause, the activists reasoned. So they formed Cit-Can, a nonprofit corporation for the promotion of Canada's multiethnic character. They bought Conterm's existing sign, added a political message to it, then leased it back.

The sign now reads, in small text, "Before Bill 101, This Sign Was Legal." Then comes the name and description of the business, in English and French. After that, the sign continues in smaller print, "Vote to Make This Legal Again."

Donderi says he ran the idea past several lawyers and each told him it was in-bounds.

But at the Commission for the Protection of the French Language, one of four provincial government bodies involved in upholding French, President Ludmila de Fougerolles wasn't so sure.

"His scheme of making a commercial message into a political message is open to interpretation," she said.

The commission is charged with following up on the complaints of activist Francophones who find non-French signs in Quebec and report them. It fields about 3,000 indignant reports per year.

Most businesses take down their non-French signs after representatives of the commission come to call, but a few hold out, De Fougerolles said. Those who refuse wind up in court.

De Fougerolles is known as a reasonable language-enforcer, letting such Anglicisms as "bargain basement" slip through because they have no succinct French equivalents.

She declined to speculate on what might happen to Donderi's sign, saying only, "We'll have to send someone to look at it and take pictures."

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