En Français S.V.P./In English Please

In 2008, the Township of Russel, just outside Ottawa, passed a by-law requiring any new commercial sign to be bilingual. An angry activist and a shopkeeper challenged the validity of the by-law. The Court of Appeal for Ontario has rejected their challenge, in Galganov v. Russel (Township), 2012 ONCA 409, released last Friday.

Before getting to the challenge itself, the court addressed the preliminary issue of Howard Galganov’s standing to bring it. Mr. Galganov neither lives nor carries on a business in the township, and is not personally affected by the by-law. At common law, he does not have standing. But subs. 273(1) of Ontario’s Municipal Act, S.O. 2001 c. 25, provides that an illegal by-law can be quashed on application of “any person”. That’s great, says the court, but “any person” isn’t just any person. “The words ‘any person’ in s. 273(1) of the Act mean ‘any person who has standing under the common law relating to standing'” (par. 15). The old presumption that legislation will not be intepreted to depart from the common law unless clear language indicates that it does still has some life in it.

Be that as it may, another applicant, Jean-Serge Brisson, has a shop in the township, which carries a unilingual French sign, so there is no question about his standing to challenge the by-law. His first claim was that the by-law was ultra vires the township, essentially because the Municipal Act does not include an explicit grant of power over language to municipalities. The court rejected that submission, saying that these days, grants of powers to municipalities are broad and general, and there is no need to look for such a specific authorization as Mr. Brisson claimed was necessary, and holding that the by-law at issue was authorized by par. 11(2)(5) of the Municipal Act, which provides municipalities with the power to make by-laws “respecting the … [e]conomic, social and environmental well-being of the municipality.” Mr. Brisson argued

that, instead of promoting the economic or social well-being of the municipality, the By-law detracts from it.  This argument is based on the supposition that a commercial establishment with a bilingual exterior sign signals that it will be able to serve customers in both languages.  If a commercial unilingual English establishment is compelled to post an exterior bilingual sign, customers will be misled and upset if they cannot be served in French (par. 33).

The court gave this claim short shrift, on the ground that it was not supported by evidence; indeed, there was expert evidence to the contrary. Actually, one can question whether it is the court’s role to venture on such an inquiry at all. No court would question whether an act of Parliament really tended to promote the “Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada” – it is enough that Parliament thinks it does. However, Parliament is sovereign within the competence defined by division of powers provisions of the Constitution Act, 1867, and subject to the Charter. A municipality only exercises limited delegated powers, so courts are justified in ascertaining whether municipal by-laws are within the bounds of the delegation. The problem here is that delegation is so vast that its terms cannot be policed without the courts’ inquiring into the wisdom of the legislation, which is something courts are not very good at, and ought to be (though perhaps they are not) uncomfortable with doing.

Mr. Brisson’s second claim was that the by-law was unconstitutional because it contravened the Charter‘s protection of freedom of expression. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Ford v. Québec, [1988] 2 S.C.R. 712, which struck down Québec’s prohibition on commercial signs in languages other than French, the court accepted that the by-law did infringe freedom of expression as guaranteed by s. 2(b) of the Charter. However, it held that the by-law was saved by s. 1 of the Charter. Its objective, “the promotion of the equality of status of both French and English,” is pressing and substantial, and it is rationally connected to the objective. As usual, the real question is that of proportionality. Apparently, Mr. Brisson’s main argument on this point was that the by-law prevented people from having signs in a language other than French or English. But the by-law does no such thing, the court points out. “Persons engaged in commerce can use any language of their choice along with French and English (par. 80). Indeed it is rather shocking that much Mr. Brisson and his lawyers placed much reliance on this claim.

The court went on to add that “in the past, Brisson has chosen to express himself only in English; he now chooses to express himself only in French on his exterior sign while continuing to employ English in other aspects of his business. To require him to employ English on his sign in addition to French is a minimal impairment of his right to freedom of expression” (par. 83). That, it seems to me, is bad reasoning. What does it matter that Mr. Brisson chose to express himself in English in the past, if now he wants to express himself in French only? The court seems to be questioning his good faith, or to be contradicting its own holding that his freedom of expression has been infringed. But that is not its role. It has nothing to do with answering the question that the case actually raises: does forcing shopkeepers to express themselves in French and English, whether they want to or not, the least restrictive means open to the township of achieving its pressing and substantial objective of promoting the equality of status between French and English. The court’s judgment, in my view, does not actually answer that question.

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