Canadian flag-waver faces prison threat

Quebec moves to prosecute unity protester. Hugh Winsor reports
Ottawa - Claude Gingras may be the first Canadian to go to jail for waving a flag for Canadian unity.

The Ottawa businessman has just received a summons from the chief electoral officer of Quebec, accusing him of paying 797.69 Canadian dollars (pounds 400) to rent a bus to take 40 employees to Montreal last October to participate in a huge "I Love Canada" rally the weekend before the vote in Quebec's referendum on separation.

About 100,000 people converged on the centre of Montreal to wave maple- leaf flags. Many had travelled to Quebec from across the country. But the separatist Parti Quebecois complained that Canadians who had come from outside Quebec to say they wanted Canada to remain united were interfering in Quebec's internal affairs.

Following the Parti Quebecois complaint, Quebec's chief electoral officer, Pierre Cote, launched an investigation into whether companies and other organisations that spent money on travel to the rally had broken Quebec's election legislation, which restricts all referendum campaign expenses to two umbrella committees, one for the "Yes" side and one for the "No" side.

Mr Gingras's company of bankruptcy trustees was one of 18 companies, nine from Quebec and nine from outside Quebec, that received summons this week charging them with breaking the law of Quebec. Although the summonses normally call for a fine, Mr Gingras has vowed to fight the charge through the courts up to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Another organisation that received a summons was the students' association of Algonquin College, also in Ottawa, because the association had rented two buses to take flag-wavers to Montreal.

The charges and the report of Mr Cote's investigation on which they are based has caused outrage, both because it appears the officer is trying to use Quebec's election regulations to stifle freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and because he said the pro-Canada rally was a threat to democracy in Quebec.

Mr Cote investigated two big Canadian airlines for offering discounted fares to attend the Montreal rally and the Ottawa Sun, a tabloid newspaper which printed flags as banners for those attending the rally to wave.

In the same report, Mr Cote dismissed widespread evidence of attempted vote-rigging in several ethnic areas as a minor problem, even though he has also preferred charges against 29 officials from the "Yes" side for fraudulent activity in connection with a large number of spoiled ballots.

The rejection of ballots by the separatist side's observers happened mainly in federalist areas and the estimated number of falsely rejected ballots is higher than the margin (less than 1 per cent) by which the "No" side won the referendum.

The Quebec official also criticised federal MPs for helping to organise the rally but he did not lay charges against any of them.

Nevertheless, the Cote report prompted a scathing response from Brian Tobin, the former Canadian fisheries minister. He was one of the MPs who organised the rally but earlier this year resigned to become Premier of Newfoundland.

Speaking on Thursday, Mr Tobin said he would gladly break Quebec's laws again.

"The chief electoral officer of the province of Quebec says: 'We've had a little minor problem. Somebody stole a few tens of thousands of ballots, that's a minor problem. But the major problem is that MPs were trying to save Canada.' Well, I want to tell the chief electoral officer that if he thinks it is a crime to stand up and say 'I love Canada', I'm guilty as charged . . . and I'll do it again."

Lawyers say that they doubt the electoral officer will get convictions and if he does, the electoral law might be overturned as being contrary to Canada's charter of rights.