On February 15, 1984, a group of Quebec retailers challenged provincial legislation prohibiting the use of English advertising on outdoor signs. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and pitted Quebec’s regional objective of preserving French culture against the fundamental freedom of expression protected by Section 2(b) of the Charter.
The Court ruled in a unanimous (5-to-0) decision that Quebec’s language law violated the Section 2(b) right to free expression and was not a “minimal impairment” to this right, preventing it from being saved under Section 1 as a “reasonable limit” on Charter protections.
Although this decision effectively struck down Quebec’s law against English advertising, the Court did concede that the provincial legislature was free to use Section 33 of the Charter (the “notwithstanding clause”) to override the effect of Section 2(b) in this instance, which Quebec’s provincial government promptly did.
Overall, Ford v. Canada demonstrates that the Charter‘s strength is more theoretical than practical in some instances. Yes, Quebec had violated the rights of its citizens, but the decision to override the Charter belongs exclusively to the provincial legislature and is not subject to judicial review. In this context, the Supreme Court’s decision in Ford represents a symbolic disapproval of Quebec’s language laws, while leaving the final authority to do something about it with the citizens of Quebec. Sadly, the citizens of Quebec aren’t confident enough in the strength of their own culture to take the final brave step of scrapping their archaic and draconian language restrictions.
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