“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. Oh! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke… The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed.”
That was Frederick Douglass writing about the fight against slavery in the United States prior to the American Civil War. However, one could easily mistake this as someone writing today about Quebec.
Following a week that saw Quebec make international headlines after inspectors from the Office québécoise de la langue française (OQLF) – the province’s notorious, Orwellian “language police” – objected to the use of the word “pasta” in an Italian menu, all Quebeckers are waking up to the despicable and illogical laws that govern language in the province – as though our ability to read, write and speak was in need of such governance.
The OQLF likely did not take its directives from anyone in the Parti Québécois, least of all Pauline Marois. However, since the PQ has come to power, they have increased the OQLF’s budget, hired more language jackboots, and have helped foster a climate that is hostile to non-Francophones. To put it in context, the OQLF’s budget in the past five years was slightly larger than that of the Montreal police force’s key organized crime squad.
With this most recent incident, which has made Quebec an international laughing stock, Quebeckers may finally be recognizing that it is precisely these kinds of laws and this antagonistic mentality that has so hurt Quebec economically, socially and politically over the years.
Indeed, one of the principal reasons that non-Francophones choose to leave the province – or not move there in the first place – is the onerous language restrictions placed on businesses and individuals. The pasta fiasco is only one example of the mind-numbing inanities that Quebeckers suffer through daily due to the province’s language laws, which themselves are of dubious constitutional legality.
The problem that is exacerbated by the PQ and other anti-anything-but-French zealots is that, rather than celebrating Quebec’s linguistic and cultural history (which is hardly French-only) and letting it flourish on its own merits, their default position is to protect French by engaging in linguistic pogroms against non-Francophones. Yet in their attempts to defend their linguistic and cultural heritage, they are oblivious to their own hypocrisy as they attack minority language groups within Quebec while decrying their own minority status and their need for protection within Canada.
While the PQ agreed that removing the word pasta from a menu was overzealous, they fail to recognize the restrictive and offensive nature of the laws that allow for such situations to arise in the first place.
Quebec’s language wars were supposed to be a thing of the past, but since their election, the PQ has embarked on a new language crusade. The government is now seeking to enforce stricter implementation of Bill 101, Quebec’s questionable language rights bill, by imposing another piece of legislation, Bill 14, which would force businesses with more than 25 employees (down from the previous 50) to work completely in French, and for municipalities with fewer than 50 per cent Anglophone residents to lose their bilingual status.
French is indisputably the dominant language in Quebec, and has only grown in prominence in recent years. But with every new language attack, or with every move to restrict students’ ability to attend schools in the language of their choice, the PQ and those in their camp only stoke the flames of linguistic battles and further expose the depressing irony of their parochial and anachronistic views.
In the rest of Canada, and now across the developed world, Quebec is regarded with an air of embarrassment. That a modern, democratic, and supposedly open society works so tirelessly to inhibit its multicultural citizens from working and living in the language of their choosing is a disgrace, particularly when French is utterly unthreatened. With all this taking place in front of a backdrop of major organized crime and corruption scandals in the province’s municipal and provincial government is overwhelmingly disillusioning.
When we accept and succumb to laws that dictate what language our citizens are able to speak or write, we are no longer free.
Quebec can either continue to stifle its dynamic and diverse citizens from expressing themselves in the language they desire, or the province can develop into a truly global and open society that promotes tolerance and freedom in all forms. If it chooses the former, Quebec will further slide into being viewed as an irrelevant, dogmatic and reactionary backwater.
Sandy White is studying law at Laval University in Quebec City.