Quebec language watchdog takes new approach to handling complaints

MONTREAL – The internationally renowned Pastagate affair has resulted in new ways for Quebec’s language watchdog to handle its beefs.

The Office quebecois de la langue francaise has adopted a new two-tier approach to complaints it hopes will wash away the bitter taste of the food fight that erupted when one of its inspectors busted an Italian restaurant for having too much Italian on its menu.

At a news conference Friday that was held a stone’s throw from that same restaurant, the government minister responsible for Quebec’s French Language Charter said office inspectors will have a bit more discretion in applying the language law.

“When . . . the power to exercise your judgment is not necessarily valued in an organization, people say, ‘the law is the law’ and the more we have narrow interpretations, it’s certain there are more slips,” said Diane De Courcy, the government minister responsible for Quebec’s French Language Charter.

“These slips are behind us,” she insisted. “Is this a 100 per cent guarantee that a bad decision or a bad case won’t be blown up? On that, I can’t promise 100 per cent but I think we have moved forward.”

Pastagate, which happened less than a year ago, prompted the government to promise to review how it handles complaints in the face of international ridicule as the story was picked up by media in a number of other countries and the rest of Canada.

At the time, media-monitoring company Influence Communications said the Pastagate story had been the subject of 350 articles in 14 countries as far away as Australia.

It also opened the floodgates of other businesses to go public with tales of being hassled by language inspectors. The controversy led to the resignation of the head of the office at the time.

The office will now investigate complaints on the basis of whether they affect an individual or are of concern to the general public.

Complaints affecting individuals could include being refused service in French in a store, while such things as unilingual signs would fall into the category affecting the public.

The agency says 95 per cent of the 4,000 complaints it receives each year fall into the latter category.

Complainants will be able to file their gripes using an online form and will be contacted by an inspector.

Acknowledging the kerfuffle wasn’t the best moment for the agency since it was founded in 1961, De Courcy insisted that certain culinary terms from other cultures have their place in Quebec restaurants.

There’s no question of rapping anyone’s knuckles for offering steak, antipasto or calamari, she said, noting that elements of the Pastagate affair and other incidents had been blown out of proportion.

De Courcy insisted the government is trying to work with citizens in a respectful way and said any anglophones who feel wronged should contact the commissioner charged with overseeing the quality of service.

That position was set up last June to investigate complaints against the office.

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