A couple of years ago I exchanged 8 pages of writing with a fellow columnist on the subject of sign language bylaws in Russell County, just outside the City of Ottawa. Despite my efforts he was unable to really grasp a fundamental aspect of my argument. The exercise helped me to see why so many people create, support or submit to so many of the improper laws we have today: they have so little understanding of the source and meaning of individual rights.
Until the last few centuries humanity was ruled by brutal force. Kings, emperors and warlords conquered land and people to take valuable assets, supposedly limited resources and the production of the people. The individual was a servant of the state which ruled with absolute power under the threat of death. Rulers could and did keep the people in a state of slavery or servitude. Then came the intellectual revolution of the enlightenment, whose leaders taught that man’s tool for survival (the right to life) was his mind (an unlimited resource); that to survive and prosper he must be free (the right to freedom) to use his mind and therefore free to keep the product of his work (the right to property).
As the idea of inalienable human rights spread, this eventually led to the creation of the United States, which I think is the only country founded on the principles of individual rights and freedoms; with the state subservient to the people (how far they have fallen). Other countries adopted similar philosophies and in some cases entrenched them in constitutional and powerful legal documents to ensure their strength. In Canada we have our constitution, which is a combination of the laws of the United Kingdom and Canada including written parts like the English Bill of Rights (1689), the B.N.A. Act (1867), the Canadian Bill of Rights (1960) and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) and unwritten parts such as the principles of natural law and fundamental justice.
In a free country the government is the servant of the people and is charged with the responsibility to protect the individual rights of citizens. Risk to citizens may come from the external force of a military attack, the internal force of actual or threatened physical violence and the implicit force of fraud and theft. When individuals are able to do as they wish so long as they do not harm others and are fully responsible for their own lives then a country can be said to be free. In such a society the retaliatory use of force is delegated to the government through the military, police and courts. Any action that does not require the use of force is the domain of individual decision making and is not the proper role of government. When government oversteps its role it uses force against innocent citizens.
In a free country a businessman can put any sign he wants outside his establishment. The law recognizes that it is his land, his building, his business and his sign. Customers are of course free to ignore the sign and ignore the business. Only when the businessman and the customer come to a mutual, un-coerced agreement can a transaction take place. Both have agreed they will benefit as a result. The lives of both are improved and no one has the right to stop them from doing this.
Since there can be no such thing as a right to violate the rights of others, a bylaw forcing the use of any language is a violation of individual rights backed by the threat of physical force. People doing no harm to others can at first be fined (violation of property rights) by the municipality, have their assets seized by the police (violation of property rights) and can eventually be imprisoned (violation of right to freedom). Such laws are not proper for life in a country that stands for freedom and human rights. They inevitably create pressure-group warfare as some groups try to use the law to selfishly impose their wishes and whims on others. Instead of being the highest protector of rights, government becomes the tool for the worst violations of rights – those against its own citizens.
The Russell Township sign language law should not be scrapped because it is expensive to defend it from legal challenges; raises the cost of doing business; some people are anti-French; or because the majority says so. Pragmatic opposition will not produce a lasting and meaningful effect. The law is based on a flawed and immoral principle and must be attacked on this basis for its opponents to win a true victory for individual rights and freedoms.