Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Quebec's Program Of Linguistic Cleansing

Language Extermination

One of the pleasures of living in Toronto is that you rarely hear news about Quebec and its program of protecting the French language. And yet that is a problem in itself, because it deserves greater attention from Canadians, if not the international community.

The chief question one has to ask is what is Quebec's ultimate purpose in "protecting" the French language?Concomitant to this is from what or whom does it need protection? The short answer, and it sounds absurd but it is true, is that Quebec's zeal is directed against the "evils" of the English and its language. [For a brief history of Quebec's linguistic and political views, read a previous post, "The Outsiders: Anglos in Quebec."]

For almost 40 years—and yet it is more evident today under the "leadership" of the Marois ultra-nationalist PQ government— Quebec, under all political parties, has been enacting laws to reduce the English language, its culture and its presence in Montreal. No one objected. The English have no advocate in Quebec City and none in Ottawa;  no political party represents their interests, provincially or nationally. Laws that regulate businesses go to great extremes to ensure that English is not present; to enforce its language laws, Quebec has a bureau (Office québécois de la langue française), the so-called language police, dedicated to just that purpose.

Here are a few recent examples, reported in the media, from the many that occur regularly.
Quebec's language watchdog is backtracking after demanding a chic Montreal Italian restaurant change its menu because Italian words such as "pasta" were too predominant. The Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) said it may have been over-zealous in its attempt to promote French language in public places. "The office will consider this restaurant's particular situation while taking into account exceptions relating to foreign specialties," said the OQLF in a release late Wednesday. [CBC News]
One of Canada's most famous restaurants has come forward with its own tale of troubles with Quebec's language watchdog, days after a flap over the word pasta made international headlines. Montreal's Joe Beef, which has been featured on international cooking shows and has a best-selling book, is the latest restaurant to complain about the Office quebecois de la langue francaise. Owner David McMillan said inspectors took issue with some of his wall art, including a memento from a visit to Prince Edward Island beach that says "exit" and an antique sign above the staff bathroom that says "please leave this gate closed."
McMillan said he was shocked by the lack of understanding from the inspectors, who were young and seemed like "deer in headlights." He said the dustup has left a sour taste, but added that he has no plans to move his celebrated restaurant elsewhere any time soon. "I love Quebec... but it's not getting any easier," said McMillan, who is completely bilingual. "My wife is French, my business partner is French, my children go to French school, but I just get so sad and depressed and wonder, what's wrong with these people?" [Calgary Herald/CP]
Major Canadian retailers are preparing to fight Quebec’s language police to keep their trademarks intact, in the face of threatened prosecution of English-named companies that include no French in their storefront signage. Montreal’s downtown streets and suburban shopping malls are awash with such brands as Banana Republic, Old Navy, Sunglass Hut, Foot Locker and Home Depot, and the Office québécois de la langue française has decided things have gone too far.The Office last month began mailing warnings to dozens of companies that have not co-operated with its push to have stores with trademarked English names add generic French terms to their signs. For example, Second Cup has added “les cafés” before its name and the eyewear chain New Look added “lunetterie.” [National Post]
The owner of a small animal charity in the east end of Montreal is so fed up with Quebec's language police that she is refusing to take down her signs in English.Sophie Fournier runs a not-for-profit dog adoption service and she has been fighting the Office québécois de la langue française for more than year.The issue is Fournier's sign on the side window of her home. It's all in English and the OQLF says it needs to come down —or be revised so that the English wording is in smaller lettering than the French. [Global News]
Now, if you are residing outside Quebec you will immediately question what is going on. Is this a farce? Is this for real? No, it's not a farce, and yes it's for real. Quebec's program of linguistic cleansing has a precedent.

In Stalinist Russia starting in the 1930s, the government instituted a program to extinguish Jewish life and Jewish culture, including the Yiddish language, in its aims to make the Soviet Union completely Russian or Russified; in Spain, starting under Franco, Basques were forbidden to speak their native language; as was the case of Korean in Korea under Imperialist Japanese rule (1910-1945). In all of these examples, authoritarian regimes instituted political and economic policies to indoctrinate if not reduce the minority people and its culture. All of the above examples proved successful in its aims to reduce the importance of the minority people and its language and culture in the public space. Harassment and enforcement obviously work if it has the force of law behind it.

So, yes, Quebec has a precedent. Linguistic cleansing is effective and it works, notably if it has the power and authority of the stare behind it, as is the case in Quebec. Its English-language minority essentially has no representation in government, and by dint of small numbers and concentration in Montreal and a few suburbs is generally powerless at the polls to influence change. It would take a concerted effort from the federal government, the other provinces, the courts, and international pressure to persuade the Quebec government to alter its course.

Quebec is an exemplary and leading liberal democracy in so many ways—its French-speaking people tolerant, generous and open in so many ways—except when it comes to English language and culture. This is its blind spot, its Achilles’ heel; it has opened a Pandora's box of linguistic tension. Many in the English community, including its media, accept the reality, accepting that the best that one can hope for is nibbling around the edges. That change will come, but not quickly; well, that would be good and preferable.

Such is not likely to happen soon, if at all, chiefly because federal leaders in Ottawa and the rest of the provincial leaders in Canada have little interest in confronting Quebec over its language laws. As for the courts, Quebec essentially ignores their rulings by either making new laws or using the notwithstanding clause (Section 33) of the federal charter, which forms part of the Canadian Constitution (Note: Quebec is the only Canadian province that has not signed and endorsed the Constitution, yet it uses its legal provisions to its advantage.). Nothing changes except the situation becomes worse. And the language watchdogs will continue to do what they do best.

Thus, anglophones, as they are referred to in Quebec, can either accept the laws as they are and face a continued policy of linguistic cleansing, or they can leave, as I have recently done. As an English writer with diminishing economic opportunities in Quebec, I had to make a hard choice, not only thinking about today but also about my children's future. I left with my family in November 2012, since I felt excluded from Quebec, this despite having been born and raised in Montreal, having a working knowledge of French, having survived two referendums, and having a love for the city of Montreal.


  1. My own experience in Canada was that people in Quebec can usually speak English quite well, and people in the other provinces often have difficulties speaking French. It may be that the people I encountered were not a representative sample. Be that as it may, fighting English is an exercise in futility.
    In China, there are unofficial spots in parks called "English corners," where anyone may come and speak English with anybody else who might show up. The desire to learn English in China (and in much of the world) is very powerful indeed.

    1. You're right that most people in Quebec can speak English sufficiently well to be understood, and that people the world over desire to learn English.

      In Quebec, however, the French language has become linked to nationalism of the linguistic kind, influenced to a great degeee by the writings of Lionel-Adolphe Groulx, a Catholic priest and the Spiritural Father of Quebec, who wanted to develop a "pur laine" people who spoke perfect French; his mission has failed, but the desire remains with the intellectual elite, including the leadership of the current ruling party of the province of Quebec.

  2. Awesome and timely post, Perry!
    Back in the 1990s the oqlf decided to change all the stop signs in NDG to 'arret' since they had erred in allowing bilingual 'arret/stop' lettering(in equal sized font, no less!). That was around the same time they had tried to enforce a 'French-only spoken' policy in Montreal/Quebec schoolyards.
    Recently, the oqlf has been encouraging 'mot-clic' in Quebec (and in France, surprisingly - or not? - 'mot-dièse' is enforced somehow) instead of the word / symbol 'hashtag' # on twitter.
    Aaacckk! Down to every little tittle. Unbelievable.Progressively goose-stepping into the shameful, shameful, shameful past.

    1. I remember the OQLF and its foolish stop sign decrees. Its policies of linguistic cleansing are bound to (eventually) fail, but not before they drive away many more English speakers from Quebec and a lot of their financial reserves. The question is whether such fanatics really care about that. it seems not.

  3. By "perfect French," I assume Lionel-Adolphe Groulx meant perfect Joual.

    1. Perhaps so; it likely was whatever dialect he favoured.


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