Canada learns a new language of protest

English-speakers in Quebec are taking on the separatists at their own game. Hugh Winsor reports

Quebec's long-smouldering language and separatism conflict has burst into flame once more, fanned by an advertising executive turned English-rights activist who plans next week to hit the Parti Quebecois government where it really hurts: on Wall Street.

For Howard Galganov, the campaign is a return to his militant past. The grandson of a Russian Jew who fled to Canada to avoid communism, Mr Galganov used to throw coffins on to the lawn of the Soviet embassy in Ottawa in protest at the treatment of Jewish "refuseniks" in the 1960s, when he was a teenage member of the Jewish Defence League. After that he concentrated on his career, but the aftermath of last autumn's referendum on parting company with Canada, which the federalists won by a hair's breadth, has brought him back on the streets.

Mr Galganov and his recently formed Quebec Political Action Group (QPAG) began their revolution on an unlikely battlefield, the grocery stores and shopping malls of a mainly English-speaking enclave in the west of Montreal. Quebec law demands that shop signs should be predominantly in French, though it does not rule out the use of English, as long as it is less prominent. Most stores, however, simply removed all English signs, provoking Mr Galganov and his colleagues to hold demonstrations to demand their return.

The group's activities last week caused an angry confrontation at parliament hearings in Quebec City, and its latest tactic promises to have even more impact. At an exclusive club in New York's financial district, Mr Galganov and a couple of busloads of supporters will reveal their version of developments in Quebec to an audience of American investors, bond traders and journalists.

This poses a real threat to Lucien Bouchard's government, which is already having trouble attracting investment, and must pay a premium to sell its bonds on Wall Street. But if the US financial community comes away with the impression that Quebec is set for yet more turmoil, that will not bother Mr Galganov.

"Mr Bouchard convinced a large group of separatist voters that there would be absolutely no price to pay for separation," says the QPAG leader. "He said Canada would be negotiating on its knees, and the Americans would be flocking to involve Quebec in Nafta [the North American Free Trade Agreement]. I want the people who voted Yes because they didn't understand the consequences to have a very clear understanding of what those consequences will be."

His group will tell the Americans that French-speakers, English-speakers and other groups get along well enough with one another to build "one of the best societies in the world". But, he adds, "we are also going to discuss the fact that there is a racist, bigoted, xenophobic government that is doing everything it can to separate the cultures and to diminish one culture for the benefit of the other".

The rise of Mr Galganov demonstrates that last October's referendum solved nothing. The razor-thin result - the federalists got 50.6 per cent of the vote, the separatists 49.4 per cent - jolted federalists in both language groups, who felt that the federal side had been too soft during the campaign. But it also gave separatist militants the energy for one more push. With separatism off the agenda for the time being, they have turned their attention to the language issue.

Many Anglophones have decided to look for opportunities in Toronto or western Canada. Mr Galganov, however, resolved to stay and fight the separatists from within. The QPAG's first activities were aimed merely at asserting English rights. But after its initial successes, he put up over C$100,000 (pounds 47,000) of his own money and began organising out of the offices of his advertising agency. As his group took off (it organised a pro-Canada rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa that drew 10,000 supporters) contributions began to roll in from across the country. "The mail brings in new cheques every day. They range from $5 to $500, and I've even had some for $1,000."

Many fear, however, that he is playing into the hands of separatist hardliners. Even though the position of French has been strengthened in Quebec in recent years, fear of assimilation is still a hot issue for the pur laine (pure wool) Francophone majority. It is not only that they are an island of six million French-speakers in a North American sea of almost 250 million English-speakers. New immigrants to Canada, who will soon be in the majority in the old city of Montreal, have tended to ally themselves with the English community, even though they are forced to educate their children in French.

The Galganov movement has produced a strong counter-reaction. When some of the stores, banks and other commercial establishments began putting up a few signs in English, Parti Quebecois militants claimed this would threaten the French language and turn Montreal into a bilingual city - which in reality it is.

At hearings into possible changes to Quebec's restrictive language laws, the government signalled it would yield to its own hardliners and bring in new restrictions on the use of English or any other language except French on public signs. It is not a path the relatively moderate Mr Bouchard would have preferred, but his hand is being forced by the reaction within his own party to QPAG's campaign.

Mr Galganov is unrepentant. He has said he would welcome a French-only law, because the new confrontation would reveal the real nature of Quebec society. "I think this dog should have been woken up 20 years ago. We are fighting the fight that should have been waged last year during the referendum campaign."

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