Quebec and Misguided Language Politics

To French and English Quebecers alike, the strict provincial language laws designed to preserve French culture have become a familiar and more-or-less accepted part of public life.

quebec-politicsUnder Bill 101, the charter currently defining Quebec’s linguistic policy, French has been declared the sole official language of government (for both internal and external communications), and the dominant language of commerce. By default, employees must conduct all customer service in French.

Business signs must feature French in a “markedly predominant” fashion; new commercial establishments must have a French name (with some exceptions); and the written French within a place of business must feature rigid translations – even in the case of traditional or ethnic words.

As no legislation is effective without appropriate enforcement, the Office Québécois de la Langue Française (QQLF), known to Anglophones as the “language police,” has been charged with enforcing the lingual priorities of la belle province. Armed not with batons but with fines and measuring tape, the QQLF’s most visible and controversial recent activities have been largely confined to the regulation of business’ signs and menus.

This year’s major uproar, dubbed “Pastagate” by the Canadian media, occurred when the QQLF reprimanded a Montreal Italian restaurant for leaving words such as “pasta” and “antipasto” without French translation. Fortunately, citizens on both sides of the linguistic spectrum decried this censure, eventually leading to the resignation of the head of the QQLF in March.

This points to an important lesson in Quebec politics: Cultural sensibilities are certainly very important to the majority French-Canadian population of Quebec, as last year’s election of a Parti Québécois (Quebec’s traditionally separatist party) government shows. However, there are costs to defending French language and culture, which Quebec nationalists must (and do) realize.

Quebec’s culture is admirably unique and appreciated by francophones all over the world

As such, its preservation is emphatically important. However, the often radical approach taken by the language police has fostered a significant degree of social disunity and economic uncertainty. Rigorous regulations make it harder for businesses to expand into the province, costing Quebecers valuable jobs.

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Canadians from different provinces have, to varying degrees, begun to cultivate impressions of French-Quebecers as being xenophobic, discriminatory, and unreasonable. While some language regulations have very tangible, beneficial effects towards the preservation of French-Canadian culture, others have very little apparent benefit at great cost, financial and otherwise.

In the wake of the pasta scandal, many notable figures, including the Quebec French Language Minister Diane de Courcy, have made recommendations of moderation for the provincial language policy. Hopefully these will be heeded by the Parti Quebecois, who are currently trying to pass far more uncompromising cultural policies known collectively as “Bill 14.”

English-speaking Quebecers have made boundless contributions to the province since its historical beginnings; it is not right to persecute them for their traditional linguistic preference. Instead of encouraging what could turn into a politically motivated witch hunt, the Quebec government could offer more subsidized French lessons, or allow each township to decide for themselves. If the pro-French movement wants to gain true legitimacy, it must make sure a message of tolerance, constructiveness, and common sense is conveyed.

Max Honigmann, a second year Political Science student at McGill University in Montreal, is a research intern at Sharnoff’s Global Views. Max is especially interested in civil liberties, intelligence, and international relations-related issues. Follow him on Twitter @maxhonigmann.

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