When Massimo Lecas, owner of the Italian restaurant Buonanotte in Montreal, Quebec, received a letter of complaint in February this year, it was not a complaint about bland dishes, unfriendly service or smelly rubbish.
The issue was more of a trivial matter. Italian words like “pasta”, “antipasti” or “bottiglia” were not “understandable” enough for the French speaking population in Quebec and should therefore be exchanged with French terms according to Quebec’s government.
Lecas posted a photo of the letter which went viral on Facebook and Twitter, and started off a widespread political and public debate about language laws being too strict in Quebec. Again.
Let’s start from the beginning. Quebec is Canada’s largest province and while the rest of the country has two official languages – English and French – Quebec assigns this ‘official language’ status only to French. 80 per cent of Quebec’s population is French-speaking; the rest is either bilingual or monolingual in English or another language. Unlike the United States, such policies suggest Canada promotes a culture of homogeneous preservation rather than of assimilation.
Quebec itself is different in other ways as well. In fact, if two referendums in the past had not been defeated, Quebec would be independent from Canada altogether by now.
And this is the main point. Quebec sees itself not as part of Canada but as a “distinct society” within it. The province desires to preserve its difference or uniqueness at all costs. Maybe it is out of revenge. Only 250 years ago the English defeated the French at the Plains of Abraham and Quebeckers haven’t forgotten this.
In the elections in September 2012, the population gave the separatist party “Parti Québécois” (PQ), led by Pauline Marois, 32 per cent of their votes, which was enough for the party to win a minority mandate. The party’s primary concern? Sovereignty from Canada. Shortly after their election, the separatist party proposed Bill 14, an amendment to Quebec’s French language charter that has been in law since 1977.
The Charter defines the use of French in the working environment as well as in public life to a great extent. Companies with 50 or more employees are obliged to undergo a Francization; all correspondence and services have to be carried out in French, with no exception. Window signs in other languages, when not prohibited altogether, have to be at least three times smaller than French signs and English terms have vanished completely from hospitals, road signs and schools.
There have even been reports of paramedics refusing to speak English with patients to avoid violating the strict laws. English is not, and has never been, welcome. It is therefore no surprise that the province faces a significant “brain drain”. Many English-speaking Quebeckers leave the province after graduating to work in a more tolerant environment. Those who go into further education are more likely to leave, while others who have no higher qualifications are left in weaker positions.
Bill 14 would have tightened the rules even further. If it had gone through, a company with only 26 employees would have had to change everything into French. Meanwhile, French children would have been kept from attending English schools, or as the government puts it, Anglophone children would have priority to enter English schools. Last but not least, the power of language inspectors (the so-called ‘language police’) would have increased tremendously.
Even the smallest use of the English language would have incriminated a restaurant, store, or business without a warning or a chance to correct their so-called “mistake”. Offenders against the language laws can be fined up to 20,000 Canadian dollars. But fierce protests from both Anglophones and Francophones in Quebec stopped the Bill from going through. It seems only a small part of the population are extremists, while the majority are fine with the use of English in the public sphere.
For Massimo Lecas everything turned out well. When his case gained so much public attention, Jean-Francois Lisée, the minister responsible for improving government relations with Quebec’s Anglophones, admitted that it might have been “overdone”, an act of an “overzealous” watchdog who should have considered cultural exceptions. The case was dropped. Funnily enough, the not-so-French-term “pizza” had escaped the eyes of the inspectors. Maybe because everyone, even the French, can at least understand “pizza”!