To live in Quebec is to become accustomed to daily reminders that French in the Canadian province is the most regulated language in the world. Try, as I did recently, to shop at Anthropologie online and you’ll come up empty-handed. The retail chain (which bears a French name) opened its first Montreal boutique in October, but “due to the Charter of the French Language” has had its site shut down: “We hope you’ll visit us in store!” Montreal’s transit authority maintains that under the present language law, its ticket takers must operate in French, which lately has spurred complaints from passengers. Last year, the city of Montreal erected 60 English safety signs nearby Anglophone schools in an effort to slow passing vehicles. The Quebec Board of the French Language and its squad of inspectors ordered that they be taken down; a snowy drive through town revealed that all had been replaced by French notices.
Since the Parti Québécois (PQ), which calls for national sovereignty for Quebec, won a minority government in September, the reminders have become increasingly less subtle. In February, a language inspector cited the swank supper club Buonanotte, which occupies a stretch of St. Laurent Boulevard, Montreal’s cultural and commercial artery, for using Italian words like pasta on its otherwise French menu. The ensuing scandal, which has come to be known as “pastagate,” took social media by storm. “These are problems we had in the 1980s,” says restaurant owner Massimo Lecas. “They were over and done with; we could finally concentrate on the economy and fixing potholes. And then this new government brought them all back. These issues might never go away now, and that is a scary sort of future.”
It’s true: despite the nuisances and controversies generated by Bill 101, Quebec’s 1977 Charter of the French Language, the province had settled in the past years into a kind of linguistic peace. But tensions have mounted considerably since the separatist PQ returned to the fore. In the wake of pastagate, the language board allowed that its requests were maybe overzealous; the head of the organization resigned. And yet the PQ has prepared for the passage of Bill 14, a massive and massively controversial revision to Bill 101. The bill’s 155 proposed amendments go further than any previous measures have to legislate the use of French in Quebec. Most English speakers see the changes as having been designed to run them right out of the province.
“Definitely non-Francophone kids who are graduating are leaving,” says restaurateur Lecas. “If you don’t have a mortgage yet, if you’re not married yet, if you don’t own a business yet, it’s like, ‘I’m so outta here.’ But leaving is not the solution because when you leave, they win.” In a poll conducted by the research company EKOS in January, 42% of the Anglophones surveyed said they’ve considered quitting Quebec since the PQ was elected.
If Bill 14 passes, military families living in Quebec but liable to be relocated at any time will no longer be permitted to send their children to English-language schools. Municipalities whose Anglophone inhabitants make up less than 50% of their populations will lose their bilingual status, meaning, among other things, that residents won’t be able to access government documents in English. For the first time, companies with 25 to 49 workers will be required to conduct all business in French, a process set to cost medium-size businesses $23 million. French speakers interested in attending English-language colleges will take a backseat to Anglophone applicants. The language inspectors will be able to instantly search and seize potentially transgressive records, files, books and accounts, where currently they can only “request” documents that they believe aren’t in accordance with the law. And no longer will they grant a compliance period. As soon as a person or business is suspected of an offense, “appropriate penal proceedings may be instituted.”
Jamie Rosenbluth of JR Bike Rental is among the business owners who’ve had run-ins with the ever more bold language board, which already has the authority to impose fines and, in extreme cases, shut enterprises down. A month ago, an inspector asked him to translate the Spanish novelty posters that paper his shop and increase the size of the French writing on his bilingual pricing list by 30%. Says Rosenbluth: “I told her, ‘You want me to make the French words 30% bigger? O.K., how about I charge French-speaking people 30% more?’ It is so silly. Are they 30% better than me? Are they 30% smarter than me?” Since the encounter, he has covered the offending posters with placards of his own that say, in French, “Warning: Non-French sign below. Read at your own discretion.”
The PQ is trying to reassure its separatist base of its seriousness as a defender of Quebecois identity. To pass Bill 14, it will need the support of at least one of the province’s two primary opposition parties. In other words, if the bill doesn’t succeed, Premier Pauline Marois of the PQ will be able to hold the opposition accountable and remain a hero to the hard-liners. The PQ knows that, in its present incarnation, it will never drastically expand its core of support, but it can galvanize its troops. Some of those supporters rallied together in Montreal last month to protest “institutional bilingualism” and champion the bill. Cheers and applause resounded when journalist Pierre Dubuc called out: “If someone can’t ask for a metro ticket in French, let them walk.”
Public hearings on Bill 14 began in early March at the National Assembly in Quebec City and are ongoing. “I can tell you that if someone came to Côte-St.-Luc to tell us we would lose our bilingual status, you will have chaos, you will have opposition of people you wouldn’t think of who will take to the streets,” testified Anthony Housefather, mayor of the municipality of Côte-St.-Luc, on the first day. “People are scared, people are very scared.” By the time Quebec’s largest Anglophone school board, Lester B. Pearson, came forward on March 19, it had already collected 32,000 signatures on a petition against the bill. “There are many ways of protecting French, and coercion isn’t one of them,” says Simo Kruyt, a member of the board’s central parent committee. “Fourteen of our schools have closed over the past seven years. We are getting fed up. We are getting tired of having to fight to be who we are. English is the language of commerce and we parents believe we are part of a world that’s larger than Quebec.”
It’s hard yet to say if the bill will make it through. The opposition Liberals have flat-out refused to support the legislation. The Coalition Avenir Québec, which holds the balance, has said that it might — if certain of the more controversial measures are “improved.” In fact, the Coalition has only come out against four sections of Bill 14, and these don’t include the provisions that would give the dreaded language inspectors new and extraordinary powers. In the face of such antagonism, it’s no wonder some are leaving. Kruyt’s eldest son, a bilingual 27-year-old engineer, is preparing to relocate to Ottawa, the Canadian capital that sits near Quebec’s western border. Says Kruyt: “There, they’ll appreciate his French and won’t hammer him because of his English.”
In response to this story published April 8, Quebec’s Delegate General to New York submitted a letter to the editor on April 11 that can be read here.