Appeal Court Ponders Russell Township Bilingual Sign Bylaw

February 8, 2012 Updated: February 9, 2012

In the latest episode of what some see as a battle for freedom of expression in Canada, judges heard the case of Galganov/Brisson vs. Russell Township in the Provincial Court of Appeal in Toronto on Feb. 2. No date has been set for the court’s judgement.

Howard Galganov and Jean-Serge Brisson have been fighting the 2008 Russell Township bylaw that enforces both French and English signage on businesses in the four small towns of the municipality.

Galganov, an Anglophone, argues that the bylaw is yet another example of the creeping imposition of bilingualism on the predominantly English-speaking population of Canada.

Brisson, a Francophone, says enforcing bilingual commercial signage dictates how a business can market its services and sets up the expectation that service will be available in both English and French, which may not be the case.

They also argue that it’s not the government’s place to tell businesses what language should be on their signs and that doing so infringes on their right to freedom of expression.

The language-rights activists are appealing an August 2010 ruling by the Superior Court of Ontario that Russell Township has the right to enforce bilingual signs.

In her ruling, Justice Monique Métivier dismissed Galganov’s application since he—unlike Brisson—is not a resident of the township. She also concluded the bylaw doesn’t infringe on Brisson’s right to freedom of expression.

The judge agreed with Russell Township that the bylaw was necessary to protect the survival of the French language in the community, while at the same time promoting the equality of French and English.

“The decision is excellent,” Russell Township Mayor Ken Hill said at the time, according to The Review. “It was clear from the outset. We live here together next to each other. This decision is now history in terms of respect for language rights in Canada.”

But Kim McConnell, president of Canadians for Language Fairness, says the case “has very wide implications” for Canada.

“If that law passes and it spreads—because that’s what Caza (municipality lawyer Ronald Caza) said is going to happen: ‘Once we get this passed we are going right across Ontario and do the same thing.’ That was his boast.”

Opponents say allowing the bylaw would set a precedent that could affect future judgements should other language laws be challenged.

“That’s what we hope the judges understand,” McConnell says, adding that the case needs to go all the way to the Supreme Court.

“What we’re hoping is that at least one of [the judges] will say ‘Yes, this has wider implications and should go to the Supreme Court.’ That’s what we want.”

The Ontario municipalities of Casselman, La Nation, and Clarence-Rockland have adopted similar bylaws, while Moncton, N.B., has a bylaw considered to be equivalent to Quebec’s Bill 101 in that it requires signs to be in both English and French with the added stipulation that the French wording must be ahead of or above the English.

After the 2010 ruling, Galganov wrote in an editorial on his website about the ramifications of losing the appeal.

“This court challenge against a law that blatantly violates every person’s freedom of expression is no small deal. If we lose, it will mean that every bureaucrat in Canada, including pissant mayors in small towns, will have the right to suspend civil rights and liberties.”