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At Joe Beef, one of Montreal’s most acclaimed restaurants, decorative elements with English words have been deemed in violation of language laws.

Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Montreal chef David McMillan has gained international notice for his skills in the kitchen. But when he fielded a call from Al Jazeera this week, it wasn't to talk about his famous lobster spaghetti.

The news network wanted to discuss his run-ins with Quebec's language inspectors. Word had spread that his restaurant, Joe Beef, was nailed for various infractions – including an old decorative sign reading, "Exit," and another saying, "Cherries." For someone who would rather be shucking oysters than debating Quebec's language rules, it was a discouraging turn.

"I love Quebec with all my heart. Our French culture and language are a treasure in North America," Mr. McMillan says. "But this just makes me sad. All I keep wondering is, 'Whatever happened to common sense?' "

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His sentiments were echoed across Quebec this week in the wake of what has come to be dubbed Pastagate – a crackdown by Quebec language inspectors targeting restaurateurs for non-French words such as "pasta" and "steak."

It brought embarrassing world attention to the Office québécois de la langue française, one of the agency's worst public-relations disasters since 60 Minutes' Morley Safer travelled to Montreal to follow a Quebec "language cop" in 1998 and declared: "The Marx Brothers would have been at home here."

The OQLF withdrew some of their complaints and the government promised a review of the inspections process in the face of widespread ridicule (from anglophones and francophones alike). But the controversy taps into larger, polarizing, language issues in Quebec, which have been pushed to the fore by the election of the Parti Québécois.

Parliamentary hearings begin this month into Bill 14, legislation tabled in December by the minority PQ government of Pauline Marois that aims to toughen Quebec's Charter of the French Language, known as Bill 101. Though the proposed provisions are less draconian than the jittery anglophone community had feared – the PQ repeatedly played the language card during last summer's election campaign – they have sparked opposition among everyone from mayors to military families, and concerns from Canada's Official Languages Commissioner, Graham Fraser.

Along with other restrictions, Bill 14 would extend French-language requirements to smaller businesses than before, and would strip bilingual municipalities of their status if the percentage of citizens who use English as their mother tongue were to drop below 50 per cent.

"I'm uncomfortable with using percentages as a way to define the vitality of a minority community," says Mr. Fraser, a former journalist whose 1984 book on the PQ is still regarded as an essential reference. Even if a town's English community grows, he notes, it would lose ground if the French community outpaces it.

"You're allowing the numbers of the majority to define what the services and rights are of the minority," he says. "The nature of minority rights … is not allowing a minority to be at the mercy of the majority."

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Mr. Fraser, who has met members of the Marois cabinet to share his views, says Quebec has legitimate reason to protect its language – a widely shared view in the province – as English becomes the de facto global language of business and science.

"One has to recognize that, yes, there are pressures and challenges for French," he says. "But they don't come from the English minority in Quebec."

Mr. Fraser's concerns are shared by many of the 83 mayors across Quebec who fear losing their towns' bilingual status. For a municipality such as Côte Saint-Luc, a bedroom community of Montreal, that status means everything from sending bilingual tax bills to posting the word "Road" in addition to "Chemin" on street signs.

"Our city is functioning perfectly well," says Côte Saint-Luc Mayor Anthony Housefather, who is spearheading a protest against Bill 14, and questions who is hurt by the bilingual status of his and other municipalities. "What benefit is there for the government to do this?"

Some worries over the new legislation are also crossing Quebec's linguistic divide. Francophone military families posted in the province currently get an exemption from Bill 101 allowing them to send their children to English school. Under Bill 14, they would lose that right.

Diane Adams, whose husband, Maxime Beaulieu, is based at CFB Valcartier in Quebec City, says she never knows if her family will get transferred to a base outside Quebec, where English will be required. Her sons, aged 9 and 11, have always attended the English-language Valcartier Elementary School.

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"There's not much stability in the military, so we look for stability. And this new law would wreck it," says the Quebec-born Ms. Adams, whose husband has done a tour in Afghanistan. "The military is like a big family, and we're feeling anxiety."

The changes also risk dealing a blow to schools that welcome the military families; though the change would affect only a total of 682 children, in some cases, these children make up as much as two-thirds of the pupils at their English schools.

"Removing students from those small schools – in rural Quebec, near military bases – would be devastating," Mr. Fraser says. "It's going to result in schools being closed."

The spike in language anxieties stand in stark contrast to the reality on the ground in places such as Montreal, where people go convivially about their day-to-day lives, switching between French and English. It's what Mr. McMillan sees every day at his Notre Dame Street restaurant, where the staff speaks French but serves customers in whatever language they choose.

"The one thing we have here in Montreal is good food and drink," he says. But he is worried about the Office québécois de la langue française's 6-per-cent budget boost this year.

"I wish they'd take the money to educate their dumb inspectors.

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"Better still, I wish they would just leave us alone."

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