When the Office Québécoise de la langue française was proposed 35 years ago, it was the object of both delight and scorn.
For the PQ government of René Lévesque, it was necessary to stop the erosion of French in Quebec. For many anglos, it was a direct assault on the way things were. The language law enforcers were ridiculed as “tongue troopers” and “language cops.” As part of the Quebec Language Charter, known as Bill 101, this initiative, painful as it’s been to some, has been an effective instrument in calming fears that, because of the power of English, Quebec French was headed for extinction.
Among the happy ironies of Bill 101 is that it has been tremendously effective in reassuring francophone Quebecers, to the extent that support for separatism has dropped to one of its lowest levels in decades. An Angus Reid public opinion poll found in November that, of a representative sample of 805 Quebec adults, only one-third of respondents (32 per cent) would vote Yes in a referendum on whether Quebec should separate to become an independent country.
Bill 101 has a lot to do with that outcome.
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Channeling immigrants into French schools, and the French-only sign stipulation—overturned by the Supreme Court and replaced by French predominance on signs—have reassured Quebecers. These rules have contributed to reinvigorating the French fact in Quebec, at least at the key public education and visage français levels. It has come at a price. English public schools have lost an important source of enrolment and French has to be twice as big as English on signs.
Mordecai Richler had a field day with satire and ridicule, but with some exceptions, Quebecers have come to understand the need for legislation to protect and enhance French in Quebec.
Any law worth the paper it’s printed on has to have teeth, and that means inspectors to ensure the law is followed.
There have been some embarrassing and well-publicized incidents, the latest being English-only plastic spoons at a West Island frozen yogurt outlet. Whether initiated by a client, as the law permits, or on the basis of unannounced spot checks, it was another instance where the language cops look petty, even ridiculous. Surely they have better things to do.
It reminds us of the Pastagate fuss over the use of the word “pasta” on a menu at an Italian restaurant, instead of the French word “pâtes.” Then there is the West Island pastry shop owner who refuses to accord French predominance on his multilingual welcome sign. He makes a point about language equality, but the law says French has to be twice as large as other languages. The lesson in all this is that the Office de la langue française needs a thorough overhaul when it comes to its chosen targets.
The most ridiculous suggestion is that the Office de la langue française be scrapped, ignoring how effective the law has been in safeguarding and enhancing Montreal’s French face.
Further erosion in favour of a bilingual face will reignite Quebec’s language battles. The language war such a move may well provoke would inflict more damage on the province and its reputation than the law, distasteful as it is. There is a certain backlash among those who do not like the language law’s restrictions, but a petition circulating on Change.org seeking 100,000 names appears to have stalled at 8,000-plus signatures.
Save your energy to ensure that seniors who never had the chance to learn French can get much-needed services in English in areas where CLSCs are not geared to offer them. Save your energy to ensure that Urgences Santé and first responders can provide emergency care in English. Save your energy to ensure we get honesty and ethical behaviour from politicians and civil servants. And let the government make the necessary operational changes so the language cops choose their battles more judiciously.
The real battle is over Bill 14, which amends the language law to impose francization on businesses with 26 to 49 employees. This unwelcome extension will impose a new level of restrictions on small and medium-sized enterprises, including those that use English because it’s convenient, to facilitate exports and take part in the dominant language of Internet technology.
The bill also would give priority to anglophones over French high school graduates who apply to English CEGEPs. Francophones could still attend English CEGEPs if there is room after less-qualified anglos are admitted. This rule will dilute the quality of first-choice students and reduce opportunities for qualified French-stream graduates to expand their English language proficiency.
That is where concerned citizens should concentrate their energies, not in a futile and foolish campaign to eliminate the Office de la langue française.