English-language newspaper harassed by Quebec government agency

Tuesday, May 26, 1998

Newspaper harassed by
government office

26 May 1998

The CCPJ has learned that a weekly Quebec newspaper, "The LowDown to Hull and Back News" ("The News"), has been the victim of intimidation and pressure by a government agency. The English-language newspaper (circulation 2,300) is published in the town of Wakefield (in the southwestern part of the Canadian province of Quebec). The first contact between the newspaper and the Quebec provincial government agency came on 18 December 1997, when Lucie Couvrette, an inspector with the Office de la Protection de la Langue Francaise (Commission for the Protection of the French Language, OLF), visited an antique store adjacent to the newspaper's office, both of which are owned by "The News" editorialist Arthur Mantell. Couvrette was visiting the store to check whether or not it was in compliance with the commercial language regulations in Quebec's Charter of the French language. The Charter is a statute which sets out to protect and regulate the use of French in Quebec, where a majority of the population are French speakers. After Couvrette identified herself, Arthur Mantell instructed a photographer with the newspaper to take her picture as she inspected his store. When she saw the camera, Couvrette fled. "The News" later published a photo of Couvrette's truck as she drove away.

Couvrette returned to the antique store on 14 May 1998, this time armed with an OLF letter which she presented to "The News." The letter stated that the newspaper could not take her picture and cited section 176 of the Quebec Language Charter, which states that no person may hinder any representative of the Commission when acting in the exercise of their functions. When pressed as to the reasons Couvrette did not want her picture taken, she stated that the newspaper was intimidating her, Arthur Mantell said. "The News" staff told Couvrette that taking her picture did not interfere with her ability to do her job, and proceeded to photograph her.

Couvrette's picture appeared in the 21 May 1998 edition of "The News", which was published on 19 May. Arthur Mantell told CCPJ that this represented the first time a Canadian newspaper had published a photograph of an OLF inspector doing their work. On 19 May, "The News" received a fax from Couvrette, which itself was dated 20 May 1998. The fax demands that the newspaper deliver all its photographs of Couvrette, along with the negatives, to her office within ten days. The final sentence of the letter read: "Govern yourself accordingly."

Nikki Mantell, publisher of "The News" (and Arthur Mantell's daughter) decided to publish the photographs after having obtained advice from Raymond Brassard, the managing editor and lawyer for the daily "The Montreal Gazette." Brassard promised that "The Montreal Gazette" would pay any legal fees "The News" might face as a result of any legal action brought by Couvrette or the OLF. Mark Bantey, lawyer for "The Montreal Gazette", called the OLF's actions "government gangsterism."

BACKGROUND

The Charter of the French language is a Quebec provincial statute, brought in by the Parti Quebecois, which is currently in power in the province. Its general aim is to take measures to ensure the predominance of the French language in Quebec, which is the only region in North America with a French speaking majority population. When Couvrette visited the antique shop owned by Arthur Mantell, she was looking for violations of the Charter of the French Language's "Regulation defining the scope of the expression "markedly predominant." The concept behind this Regulation is that French must be the markedly predominant language on any public signs and posters. The Regulation defines as markedly predominant any text where the French has a "much greater visual impact than the text in the other language." The criteria for ensuring that French has a greater visual impact are defined as being met when, inter alia, the French characters are at least twice as large as the characters of another language.

RECOMMENDED ACTION

Send appeals to authorities

* asking them to make public any action they intend to take against "The News" should the demands in Couvrette's 20 May letter not be met and further asking them to state the grounds for any such action
* urging them to desist in any further harassment of "The News"
* reminding them that Canada has ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 19 of which guarantees the right to freedom of expression, including the right to impart information and ideas of all kinds

Appeals to

Mrs. Louise Beaudoin
Minister responsible for the application of the French Language Charter
Fax: +418 643 9164

Please copy appeals to CCPJ if possible