There had been an unofficial ceasefire in Quebec’s language wars for most of the past decade. But late last year, voters returned the separatist Parti Québécois to office. The PQ, which leads a coalition government, is pushing to tighten the province’s laws protecting the French language.
One episode has caught the public’s attention. Last month, inspectors from the government language agency, the Office québécois de la langue française, objected to the repeated use of the word “pasta,” instead of the French word “pâtes,” on a Montreal restaurant menu.
One global outcry and one universally-used catchphrase (“Pastagate”) later, Quebeckers of all linguistic stripes are wondering about the health of the French language, and of the government agency that promotes it.
Huntingdon, Quebec mayor Stéphane Gendron (Photo: Patrick Cox)
Huntingdon, Quebec is just a few miles north of the New York border. It’s a small mill town founded by the British. Well, it was a mill town; now all seven mills are closed. Huntingdon’s mayor, Stéphane Gendron oversees a mixed community of French and English speakers.
“When we have our meetings, we usually we switch from French to English in the same sentence,” said Gendron. “It’s like breathing air, we don’t care.”
Sounds reasonable, but that linguistic back-and-forth in Huntingdon is technically against Quebec’s law.
Gendron recalled receiving an email last year from the Office québécois de la langue française. He said the email informed him that he and his administration are “not authorized to communicate in English with our citizens.”
To communicate in English would be to violate the French language charter. The charter, which came into effect in 1977, made French the official language of Quebec.
The only municipalities exempt from using French are those with a majority of native English speakers. Huntingdon has a slight majority of French speakers. So, no official business can be conducted in English. No public meetings, no street signs, no notices about garbage collection.
Quebec’s assembly is holding hearings on Bill 14, a measure that would tighten the province’s language laws. The bill would strip dozens of cities of their bilingual status, and it would require businesses with 25 or more employees to communicate in French. Currently, only larger companies have to do that.
Quebec’s French Language Office initially objected to the word “pasta” on the menu of an Italian restaurant. Will they target other Montreal restaurants that use non-French words?
The bill has lost support since Pastagate. But the hearings will continue for six weeks, according to its sponsors—because they say they want to show that French remains vulnerable in Quebec, and should be further protected.
Among them is Jean-François Lisée, a prominent member of the ruling Parti Quebecois.
“People say ‘why do you need to do that? Let things go as they stand, go with the flow,’” said Lisée. “Well, in the rest of north America they let things go for French, and it didn’t go well for French.”
English has what Lisée calls a massive gravitational pull, which can only be countered with new regulations. The aim is to maintain Quebec’s “public face” as a French-speaking region.
“If we hold this line, we’re going to stay distinct.,” said Lisée. That linguistic distinction—being Francophone in North America—is what gives Quebec its economic and creative edge, say French language protectionists. Lisée has little time for those don’t buy the argument: “If everybody else doesn’t understand it—well, that’s the price you pay for being original.”
But even among Quebeckers who do understand the need for language protection, there are some who question how it’s enforced. Many businesses have come forward saying they are being newly targeted by Office québécois de la langue française inspectors for using foreign words—like the words “on” and “off,” discovered on a restaurant microwave. The language agency went so far that the government was forced to rein in “overzealous” inspectors. Now the office has a new director, with orders to be more flexible. What’s more, support for Bill 14 has waned. The Parti Québécois’ coalition partners say they won’t vote for it without substantial rewriting.
Nothing, however, is simple in Quebec’s language politics. Not all Francophones support more protection for French. And not all Anglophones oppose it.
“I’m an English speaker and it’s not really what most English speakers in Quebec speakers feel,” said Montreal writer Julie Barlow. “But I’m entirely in favor of a certain control over language in Quebec because we are small population in a huge sea of English speakers.”
Barlow doesn’t understand why some municipalities want to hang onto their bilingual status. “I don’t have much sympathy for it.,” she said. “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to live in a tiny community of English speakers and live insulated and isolated from the rest of the province.”
The Montreal suburb of Cote Saint-Luc is one such place. It’s currently permitted to communicate bilingually with its residents. But it would stand to lose its bilingual status, should the Bill 14 become law. It also happens to be home to a large Jewish population. Among them, Shelley Rothman-Benhaim.
Rothman-Benhaim’s landlady is in her late 80s, and “she really needs the English communiqués.” The landlady’s native language is Yiddish. She also speaks English but not French—for good reason.
“When the Jews first came to Quebec,” said Rothman-Benhaim, “they weren’t allowed to go to the French schools because they were Catholic-based. So they had to go to Protestant schools and they were English based.”
Nowadays, most younger Jews are French/English bilingual. But not the elderly.
They need their bilingual notices in the mill town of Huntingdon too, according to mayor Stéphane Gendron. But he said what the people really need is jobs.
“This whole issue about language is ridiculous because we have a high rate of unemployed people,” said Gendron. “We’re broke. But we’re arguing [about] language.”