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1985: 4,000 Manitoba laws declared invalid

The Story

It all began with a speeding ticket. Canada's Supreme Court has ruled that an English-only traffic ticket violated the 1870 Manitoba Act. The province's founding document gave equal status to French and English in provincial courts and the legislature, but in 1890 Manitoba revoked French rights. With the ruling, all 4,000-plus laws written in English and passed since then are invalid. But as this CBC news report explains, there won't be anarchy in the streets of Winnipeg. The court's ruling renders all laws temporarily valid until Manitoba can translate its laws into French - even though nobody knows how long it will take. Meanwhile, reaction is mixed in the province. The Société franco-manitobaine, which backed the Supreme Court challenge, is glad to have won, but says nothing in the ruling guarantees improved services for French-speaking Manitobans.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: June 13, 1985
Guests: Lloyd Axworthy, Ed Broadbent, Gary Filmon, Dale Gibson, Brian Mulroney, Howard Pawley, Réal Sabourin
Host: Hilary Brown
Reporter: Whit Fraser, David Halton
Duration: 6:11

Did You know?

• The province of Manitoba was established by the 1870 Manitoba Act. Owing to the province's large French-speaking Métis population, the act specified that all the province's laws were to be written in English and in French.

• In 1890, in the face of a decreasing francophone population, the provincial legislature passed the Official Language Act. It made English the province's only official language and withdrew public funding for Catholic schools.

• The issue of French in Manitoba lay mostly dormant until the 1970s. In 1976, Manitoban Georges Forest challenged a parking ticket his daughter received on the grounds that it was in English only. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. In its ruling of Dec. 13, 1979 - which accompanied a decision on a parallel case involving Quebec's French-only laws - the court ruled the Manitoba legislature's 1890 amendment to the Manitoba Act was unconstitutional.

• The 1979 ruling prompted Manitoba's NDP government (elected in 1981) to expand French-language services - a move that was bitterly opposed by some anglophones in the province.

• As the anti-French protest gained momentum in early 1983, the headquarters of the Société franco-manitobaine was burned down by an arsonist. Vandals also sprayed buildings in St. Boniface, Winnipeg's French-speaking district, with extreme anti-French graffiti.

• In May 1983, the Manitoba government struck a deal with the federal government and the province's francophone society. According to the Globe and Mail (Sept. 22, 1983), Manitoba would get 10 years to translate "450 statutes important to the daily lives of Franco-Manitobans." French-language services would also be entrenched in the Constitution. In return, the society would not pursue solutions to its grievances in the courts.

• During municipal elections across the province in October 1983, many Manitoba towns held plebiscites on the issue of French-language services. Of those who voted, 75 per cent rejected extended French-language services. With the plebiscite results as backing, "the agreement [with the Société franco-manitobaine] was filibustered into oblivion by the Tories in the provincial Legislature." (Globe and Mail, June 14, 1985)

• In 1980, Winnipegger Roger Bilodeau received an English-only speeding ticket. He contested it on the grounds that it wasn't in French and therefore violated the 1979 Supreme Court ruling on Georges Forest's original parking ticket. It was this case that led to the June 13, 1985, ruling - discussed in this clip - that ordered Manitoba to translate into French all laws passed since 1890.

• In November 1985, the Supreme Court ordered Manitoba to translate all its unilingual laws into French within three years. By July 1987, the province had translated most government forms into French. Translating the laws was budgeted at $10 million. At that time, the province's francophone population was estimated at nine per cent. Three per cent of Manitobans used French on a daily basis at home.

• According to Statistics Canada, Winnipeg had the fourth-highest proportion of bilingual (French and English) residents in 1991. The city placed behind Montreal, Ottawa-Hull and Quebec City.

Also on June 13:
1886: Fire wipes out much of Vancouver, destroying nearly 1,000 buildings. Fifty people are killed, and only 4 houses are left standing. Rebuilding begins within days.
1993: Kim Campbell is chosen to succeed Brian Mulroney as federal Progressive Conservative leader and prime minister. The Vancouver MP had held several cabinet portfolios, including justice. But on October 25, four months to the day after she was sworn in as Canada's first woman prime minister, Campbell and the Tories are defeated in a general election.


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