The Russell Chamber of Commerce has begun collecting funds to fight a new regulation that requires signs in the municipality to be displayed in both English and French.
“We are prepared to go all the way to the Supreme Court if we have to,” said chamber president Corey Butler, after the township passed the controversial bylaw amendment at a council meeting Monday night.
The amendment, which went into effect immediately, was passed by a vote of 3-2 after its third and final reading, before a crowd of 300 residents who were sharply divided over the issue.
New business owners must now get a permit from the municipality to put up signs, and those who don’t comply with the bilingual requirement will face fines.
The debate over bilingual signs started before Christmas, when a group representing local francophones complained about the lack of French signs at the Beer Store in Embrun. Supporters have argued businesses need to recognize both the francophone and anglophone populations of the township.
Opponents, including the Russell and Embrun chambers of commerce, argued the bilingual requirement infringes on freedom of expression and gives customers the impression that a business provides service in both official languages, even if that is not the case.
At the council meeting, residents donated $2,000 to the Russell Chamber of Commerce to help with legal fees for a possible challenge.
Mayor Ken Hill, who cast the deciding vote, said the township has done its research, obtained legal and constitutional opinions and won’t back down.
“If someone challenges our bylaw, we certainly are going to defend ourselves,” he said.
Area resident Howard Galganov sent out 6,000 flyers last week asking people to boycott French-owned businesses over the issue.
Meanwhile, the Russell Township Residents Association said it is willing to work with council to resolve the bylaw dispute that has divided the municipality.
Russell is the fourth township in eastern Ontario to adopt a bilingual sign regulation, after Casselman, Clarence-Rockland and La Nation.
Russell Township, 20 kilometres southeast of Ottawa, has a population of about 14,000 and includes the communities of Russell, Embrun, Marionville and Limoges. In the 2001 census, 46 per cent of the township's residents listed French as their mother tongue; 48 per cent listed English.
Many different populations live in Canada's bilingual belt, a territorial surrounding and partially encompassing Québec that includes large mixed populations of Anglophones and Francophones. Acadians live at the eastern end, concentrated in Francophone-majority areas in northern and eastern New Brunswick; Anglophone Québecers are concentrated in the Montréal area and the Outauoais region opposite Ottawa and form a majority population in western Montréal island; Franco-Ontarians live mainly in northern and eastern Ontario, and form majority populations in only a few areas. One of these areas is in the combined counties of Prescott and Russell, where Francophones make up two-thirds of the population.
Ontario's Franco-Ontarian community, amounting to perhaps a half-million people or 5% of the proince's population, is the largest Francophone population in Canada outside of Québec, larger even than New Brunswick's Acadians. Unlike the Acadians of that Atlantic Canadian province, who mainly live in compact territories where they form a majority population and have a strong group identity, however, Franco-Ontarians represent a diverse group, including long-settled French Canadian populations in northern and eastern Ontario and large populations of more recent immigrants from around the Francophone world, and form minority populations almost everywhere. Partly as a result, language shift to English among Franco-Ontarians is quite high; in the northern Ontario city of Sudbury, where Francophones make up 28% of the total population and can claim access to a broad variety of governmental, educational and even media resources, the shift to English remains quite high, with only 64% of the current generation of Francophones passing on their language to their children. Even Vanier, a long-established Francophone community in Ottawa that has served as something of a cultural centre, is increasingly Anglophone.
Eastern Ontario, where Prescott-Russell is located, is a partial exception to this rule. Although Francophones in eastern Ontario form only one-seventh of the regional population, they tend to be concentrated in particular areas rather than being spread out and tend to evidence many fewer income and employment disparities with. Moreover, the presence of a strongly Francophone Québec just across the Ottawa River may help language retention.
That said, the language law might be a good idea and it might be a bad idea, but I'm not at all sure that it will help in the end. In any environment where any language community historically dominates a less influential one by force of numbers and power, language maintenance never mind language revival on the part of the disadvantaged language community is going to be difficult. For instance, I'm sure that an overwhelming majority of Prescott-Russell's Francophones speak English. What proportion of that area's Anglophone population speaks French? Simple sign laws won't do anything to change that dynamic, I fear.