It is laughable that the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) would go after an Italian restaurant for having a few Italian words on its otherwise all-French menu, but that’s what happened this week in Montreal. It is even more absurd that the Parti Québécois government of Pauline Marios has distanced itself from the incident, calling it a case of overzealousness. The PQ under Mme. Marois has been pushing Quebec’s divisive language buttons since winning a minority government last fall; it has only itself to blame if the word “pasta” is now in the crosshairs of language inspectors.
The case in question involves Buonanotte, a trendy Italian bar and restaurant that sees its share of NHL hockey players and politicians at its linened tables. The menu is mostly in French, as required by law, but Italian words like polpette (for meatball), calamari (for squid) and pasta (for pasta) were left in, presumably to add a dash of Roman flavour. For the average French-speaking Quebecker, those Italian words are as inoffensive the name Gionta on the jersey of the well-loved captain of the Montreal Canadiens hockey team. But to the OQLF, they are a blight on the French language, and it asked the restaurant’s owners to remove them.
PQ cabinet ministers laughed off the incident, portraying it as an overreaction. The OQLF has since backed off and said it would take into account the obvious peculiarities of an Italian restaurant serving Italian dishes. But can the OQLF be blamed for its hyper-vigilance, given the atmosphere created by the PQ since taking power? One of the first acts of the minority government was to propose a law that would make it easier for citizens to register complaints about being served bilingually, instead of in French only, in a store or restaurant; Mme. Marois called on Quebeckers to be “sentinels of the language” and report alleged abuses.
Then there was the case of Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, the small town that was ordered to stop including a page of English information in its municipal newsletter. It was a move that angered the town’s French-speaking mayor and many of its francophone residents, but which was left to fester by the PQ. Another town with even deeper English roots, Lac Brome, is now being threatened with the loss of its bilingual status because its anglophone population may have fallen below the 50-per-cent benchmark required to be blessed with the magnanimous privilege of selling “pasta.”
Quebec’s contentious language laws and the institutions overseeing them are important to French-speaking Quebeckers. But when a new government begins its mandate by encouraging Quebeckers to snitch on each other, and it refuses to show any flexibility in cases where it is clearly warranted, then you end up with the ridiculous sight of inspectors asking for the removal of the word “pasta” from Italian menus. If the OQLF is a laughingstock today, it has the PQ government to thank for that.