Skip to main content

Quebec’s Premier Pauline Marois and Diane De Courcy, the minister in charge of French language policyMATHIEU BELANGER/Reuters

The Quebec government spent much of the past two weeks being visibly embarrassed by what has become known as "pastagate." It began when an Italian restauranteur in Montreal complained that an inspector from the Office québécois de la langue française had ordered him to remove Italian words, including pasta, from his menus. The embarrassment deepened when other restaurant owners revealed they had been ordered by inspectors to tape over the "on/off" button on a microwave, and not use English words on their shopping lists. The stories spread around the world, and Quebec briefly became an international laughingstock. So Diane De Courcy, the minister responsible for the Charter of the French Language, vowed to review the rules.

"The results of certain inquiries have lent themselves, with reason, to very severe criticism," Mme De Courcy told the press. "This is not desirable, not for the businesses, not for the office personnel, not for francophones or anglophones."

If Mme De Courcy thinks the criticism has been severe thus far, she should gird herself for what will come next. The Parti Québécois minority government is currently promoting Bill 14, a massive revision and expansion of every section of Quebec's Charter of the French Language, as well as of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, which was tabled in December. Bill 14, if passed as introduced, will give dramatic new powers to language inspectors, to the government and to hardline language activists looking to make hay.

Take the dreaded language inspectors, for instance. Under the section of the Charter of the French Language governing the OQLF as it currently stands, inspectors can "request" documents from people or businesses suspected of language violations. Under the amendments proposed in Bill 14, inspectors will have the power to "require the production of any book, account, record, file or other document for examination or for the purpose of making copies or extracts," and to "seize any thing which he or she believes on reasonable grounds may prove the commission of an offence." Those are policing powers, not powers of inspection.

As well, where currently someone alleged to have committed an infraction is given time to comply before charges are laid, Bill 14 removes the mention of a compliance period. Instead, once an infraction is suspected, the OQLF "shall refer the matter to the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions so that appropriate penal proceedings may be instituted."

If Bill 14's amendments are adopted, English schools in Quebec will be required to ensure students are proficient enough in French to "interact and flourish in Quebec society, and participate in its development." The government will withhold the high-school or college diplomas of students who don't meet this self-serving standard. The government will also have a say about who can be accepted into an English-language college. And it will reach into daycares, requiring providers to "include activities aimed at helping children familiarize themselves gradually with the French language."

Bill 14 takes away the right of Canadian soldiers stationed in Quebec to educate their children in English. It requires businesses with more than 25 employees to work entirely in French, where the threshold is currently 50. It gives a person the right to file a complaint if they think they have been harassed at work for their inability to speak a language other than French. And it will end the bilingual status of dozens of municipalities that have historic English populations that date back to Confederation.

As well, Bill 14 narrows the rights of the individual in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, adding as a basic protection, in the same section that guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of thought, "the right to live and work in French in Quebec to the extent provided for in the Charter of the French Language." Charters of rights and freedoms were invented to protect minorities; under Bill 14, Quebec's charter will ensure the rights of the province's majority. It's an extraordinary move.

The French language is as much a part of Canada as English is, and Canadians generally accept that it needs protections in order to survive. Lately there seems to have been a balance that has settled on the province. There are few reasonable people who want Quebec's language laws to be either scaled back or made more restrictive, and support for another referendum sits at a low 30 per cent.

There's something sinister then, when, at the same time the PQ government intones that the backlash over the relatively minor pastagate scandal was "not desirable," it is selling a bill whose proposed amendments will unquestionably ignite a much greater backlash. The only logical way to understand such a contradictory move is that Bill 14 is part of a deliberate strategy of confrontation with Ottawa and English Canada designed to create the polarized conditions that would favour another referendum.

And that makes it all rather odious. It is one thing to want to start a legitimate argument about the future of Quebec. It is another entirely to use troubling, heavy-handed measures that include giving explicit powers of seizure to language inspectors and making the ability to live and work in French a charter right to get the ball rolling. The PQ is not so much picking a fight as it is revealing an ugly side of Quebec's hard-core separatist movement.