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The last town newsletter that includes English sits on Mayor Denis Chalifoux’s desk in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
The last town newsletter that includes English sits on Mayor Denis Chalifoux’s desk in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

In Sainte-Agathe, language ruling disrupts a tradition of harmony Add to ...

The town bulletin of the pretty Quebec community of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts contains the kind of information you’d find in thousands of places across Canada: Library hours, civic awards, updates on parking rules. The latest edition, however, offered an extra little tidbit.

It announced it would be the last bulletin to feature English. The city, complying with directives from the Office québécois de la langue française, advised residents that English news would have to go.

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In many ways, the news was unexceptional. Anglophones make up about 5 per cent of the overwhelmingly French-speaking Laurentians town, far below the 50 per cent required to give a Quebec town bilingual status (weekend cottagers drawn to the area’s lakes and ski hills push the percentage to about 10 per cent). From a legal standpoint, the Office was right and Sainte-Agathe city hall, in its initial struggle against the rule, was wrong.

Yet the change has some citizens in the lakeside town shaking their heads – not just anglophones but the mayor and other francophones as well, united in wondering whether the page of English in the eight-page bulletin was a threat to the cause of French.

“It saddens me a bit,” Mayor Denis Chalifoux said in an interview. “We francophones and the anglophone community have cohabitated in Sainte-Agathe for years, and still cohabitate. It’s a love story. The city was built as much by them as by us. They’ve never asked anything from us.”

Mr. Chalifoux said he felt he had no choice but to comply with the changes, which were initiated after a visit from a language inspector in 2011. During the inspection, the official also told the city it would have to replace 15 English-language computer keyboards and remove public signs such as “Don’t feed the ducks” by the town lake, Mr. Chalifoux said.

As for the newsletter, the city broke the news to its 10,000 residents in its December bulletin.

“Beginning in 2013,” it said, “the city will have to comply with the requirements of the Office québécois de la langue française, and adopt a francization plan which requires the abandonment of the anglophone portion contained in this bulletin.”

Language spats are part of life in Quebec, and the province’s English community, already anxious over the election of a Parti Québécois government, is not going to go to the barricades over a town bulletin. And anglophones in Sainte-Agathe will continue to get their civic news – separately. The city is redirecting the English portion of the bulletin into a local English-language newspaper, and will continue offering English information on its website.

Still, some see the change as a needless intrusion into their relationship with their local government.

“For an organization like the Quebec government to be interfering with how a community works locally is not productive or constructive,” said Joseph Graham, co-founder of the Sainte-Agathe Heritage Committee. “It’s a sign of pettiness.”

Michel Cholette, who was leaving the Sainte-Agathe post office on the old-fashioned main street this week, saw the inclusion of English in the newsletter as a gesture toward his fellow citizens.

“I spend time with anglophones every day – they’re my customers – and they are extremely nice. We have a harmonious relationship,” he said. “Having an English section in the newsletter says that we get along.”

Retiree Ed Wagner, who grew up in Sainte-Agathe, didn’t like it. “I find it sad that they’re focusing on this. My children are bilingual, my grandchildren are trilingual – why is the government pushing unilingualism? We’re facing globalization.”

Even if they won’t see their language in the town bulletin, anglophones have their place in the history of Saint-Agathe, 100 kilometres north of Montreal. The town was founded by pioneering francophones but soon greeted newcomers drawn to its sparkling air and pristine lakes. The minorities are recognized with two plaques at the snow-edged shores of Lac des Sables, one honouring the town’s anglophones (Montreal’s moneyed anglo establishment summered here), the other its longstanding Jewish community; the presence of both date to early years of the last century. The plaques stand just across from the local Anglican church and not far from the House of Israel Synagogue.

Sainte-Agathe isn’t the first Quebec town to be told to cease communicating bilingually. Huntingdon, where 40 per cent of the population is English, was ordered to do the same last March and refused. After the high-profile Huntingdon case, the Office sent letters to 400 municipalities telling them they were not allowed, under the law, to have bilingual communications; some got visits from language inspectors and were forced to drop English.

“If you do everything bilingually, it doesn’t reflect the fact that French is the official language of Quebec,” said Martin Bergeron, a spokesman for the Office québécois de la langue française. He said municipalities have an “exemplary role” to play. “The law exists and it’s our role to ensure it’s applied.”

To the mayor, however, saying au revoir to the English portion of his bulletin is something he’s doing with regret. “I love the French language and want it to be protected,” Mr. Chalifoux said in his office at city hall. “But I don’t see how this bulletin posed a danger to my language.”

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