09/28/2012 05:24 EDT | Updated 11/28/2012 05:12 EST

The Boy Who Got Attacked for Speaking English


Seventeen year old "G" and his cousins were walking down a street in the Montreal suburb of St. Leonard one evening last week. They were talking in English. As G tells it, they came upon a young adult male who took offence, admonishing them that "you are not allowed to speak English here" and blocked their path. Pushing him out of the way in order to proceed, G was then punched in the face. Twice. His battered face can be seen here.

My reaction upon reading such an account would normally be to chalk it up to raging teenage hormones, the typical bravado that crops up on any given night on any street in any number of cities or towns in North America. Part and parcel of growing up, and testing the boundaries of budding machismo. Jets and Sharks staking out their turf as they sing their way through West Side Story.

But this is Quebec. No one should be surprised when members of the majority ethnic group expect -- and demand -- that total strangers kowtow to their culture and language.

Over 80 per cent of Quebec's population has French as their mother tongue. Yes, majority does and should rule. But western democracies have removed from the influence of majority rule certain legislative considerations. Individual liberty is one such area. For example, members of one race -- even if they make up 99 per cent of the voting population -- can't "democratically" decide to enslave the 1 per cent who aren't.

Common language can be defined as the language spoken in groups of two or more when at work, home, or play. Two principles determine common language: freedom of speech and freedom of association, both of which are guaranteed by our charters of rights. By their very nature, charters of rights are meant to counter the tyranny of the majority. As Pierre Trudeau said: "Charters are made not to protect majorities, whether in Quebec or Canada, but to protect minorities..."

Yet common language must be the majority language has been enshrined in Quebec law ever since the Charter of the French Language (a.k.a. "Bill 101") was given royal assent in 1977. The second paragraph of the preamble to Bill 101 reads:

"Whereas the National Assembly of Qué resolved therefore to make of French the language of...communication..."

Note that "communication" is not qualified in this instance. The intent is unambiguous and is meant to include all forms of communication, including common language. Although preambles aren't given the same weight as the body of the law itself, the rest of Bill 101 does full justice to its intent: every dotted "i" and crossed "t" is meant to establish one group's language over all others. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the notorious language of education provisions which segregate all Quebecers into two separate and distinct civil rights categories violating the basic tenet of free and democratic societies that all are equal before and under the law.

When it is drummed into you by teachers, legislators, the media, and virtually all authority figures that the language of the majority must be the common language spoken by everyone regardless of their ethnic, linguistic, or minority status, it shouldn't surprise us when citizen vigilantes such as the one G and his cousins met on the streets of St. Leonard, take it upon themselves to enforce this credo using the law as justification. And, as was the case in this instance, resorting to violence.

Let's be clear: there is no historical, legal, or moral precedent to support the common language must be the majority language dictum.

Historical: when the first Habitants paddled their way down the St. Lawrence River some 450 years ago the majority language they encountered upon arrival at Hochelaga and every other spot they landed was an aboriginal language. If the common language principle was in place, we'd all be speaking Huron today. Yet it was the minority French language group that imposed their culture, language, and religion upon the majority language group, often at the end of a musket barrel.

Legal: Official language status applies only to services provided by government. That's it. With the possible exception of para-public and emergency services (e.g., ambulances, social and health services) everything else falls under the private sector and outside the imposition of official languages. In the private sector, Swahili, Portuguese, and any other language that free people decide to speak are on par with French and English. Indeed, because of the incredible advantage that accrues to the French and English languages by virtue of their official status they must necessarily be put at the bottom of the list when any special consideration to a particular language is considered.

Furthermore, "language" is a prohibited base of discrimination in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Federally, although "language" is absent as a prohibited base in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a 2005 Supreme Court of Canada decision appears, to this layman's reading, to have established "language" as a prohibited base (see point 12 here).

Moral: Decent, civilized people simply don't impose their culture and language on those of other cultural and linguistic groups. If that were the case, English -- the language shared by the overwhelming majority of Canadians -- could be imposed by force of law on Quebecers.

Is what happened to G a "hate crime"? I am reluctant to speculate. I will, however, nominate as a candidate for "hate literature" any law that deems to impose upon free individuals the language they must speak when associating with other free individuals.

Trudeau the Younger recently declared what would cause him to consider the breakup of Canada. Justin has his red line, I have mine. I don't want to continue living in a country that enables a law on any part of its territory that favours one ethnic group over all others.

As his father once said: "I think we are entitled to draw the line when we get into governments whose mandate is to govern particularly for one linguistic community. It would be the same if they were to govern for one religious group or one race."