Talk amongst yourselves, but en français

Proposed changes would make Quebec’s language laws even more draconian

Talk amongst yourselves, en Francais

Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

For nearly three years, Wes Bolduc has owned Bar Blue Dog, an ill-lit and purposefully grimy St. Laurent Boulevard staple in Montreal. He knows the linguistic lay of the land: though he estimates his clientele is roughly 75 per cent English, Blue Dog staff are bilingual. Bolduc, who can trace his own French lineage back to the 17th century, says he has never received a complaint—or a visit from the Office québécoise de la langue française, the government enforcer of Quebec’s language laws. “A rum and Coke in English is pretty much a rum and Coke in French,” the 30-year-old Bolduc says.

Maybe so. But if the Parti Québécois has its way, Quebec’s language laws will be extended to include Quebec’s roughly 196,000 small- and medium-sized businesses, meaning it won’t be enough to only speak French to customers. Under the PQ plan, outlined in the party’s 2008 electoral platform and currently part of the party’s plan should it form the next government, French would be the designated “langue de travail,” (working language), meaning all written and verbal communication, including among the staff, must be done in French.

In order to operate, each business would likely need a certificat de francisation attesting that it has “achieved a level of French so as to meet the objectives of the charter of the French language.” Currently, only businesses with 50 or more employees must abide by these rules. This means every dry cleaner, dépanneur (corner store) and coffee shop must operate in French—even if its owners aren’t.

For Bolduc, the proposed change to the law is essentially useless. He and his employees already address their customers in French, and he finds it odd that the government would want to mandate what language he uses with his staff. “We’re bilingual already,” he says. “I don’t hire people who can speak French because the government tells me to,” he says, “but because it’s good for my business.”

According to the PQ’s language critic, though, such an ad hoc French policy isn’t enough. In fact, Pierre Curzi says the “phenomenon of bilingualization of Montreal and the surrounding areas” is a grave concern to the PQ, the party responsible for Bill 101 in the first place. “Montreal is anglicizing,” Curzi, a PQ MNA, says. “We notice that within the city, the culture of the minority English population is much more attractive. Sooner or later, English will be more important for the majority of the population.”

Curzi isn’t immune to making rash statements. Last fall, he suggested the lack of French players on the Canadiens hockey team was a deliberate move on the part of federalists to starve Quebecers of a powerful “symbol of identity.” In this case, Curzi says he has statistics to back up his words: the number of francophones on the island of Montreal “has slid under the psychological threshold of 80 per cent,” he wrote in a report last year, citing a 2006 Statistics Canada study.

What’s more, he says, the roughly 47,000 allophone (neither French nor English) immigrants coming to Quebec every year are five times more likely to work in English than in French. The reason is, these immigrants are more likely to work in small- or medium-sized businesses in Montreal—most of which, Curzi says, are decidedly slack when it comes to speaking French.

For the PQ, fixing the problem isn’t only a matter of cracking down on small businesses; a PQ government would make French CEGEP (Quebec’s college system) mandatory for everyone save for Quebec-born anglophones. (A recent study by the CSQ union group showed a significant increase in English language CEGEP enrolment by both francophones and allophones, in part to better their job prospects.)

By extending Bill 101 to smaller businesses, the PQ is going against the very Péquiste who wrote the law. Its architect, PQ minister Camille Laurin, wrote in 1977: “There is no question of preventing [non-French-speaking] employees from working together in their own language, provided it is understood that they must serve their French customers in French.” In fact, PQ premier René Lévesque worried about OQLF coming down on business owners like Bolduc, as well as on Montreal’s ubiquitous dépanneurs, a huge number of which are owned by non-francophone immigrants.

Curzi says it is time to “update” the law, though he has yet to hash out how the PQ would enforce it­­—or how much it would cost. Policing Quebec’s smaller businesses, which make up 95 per cent of all businesses registered in the province, would be a significant bureaucratic feat. Already, Quebec “is at the head of the pack in Canada when it comes to regulations” and has the highest per-employee costs in the country, according to Canadian Federation of Independent Business president Martine Hébert. “It would be another reason to get out of the province,” says Kyle Kerr, co-owner of the Bofinger, a Montreal-based chain of BBQ restaurants.

“It could be a nightmare to enforce,” admits Curzi. His solution would be to concentrate OQLF efforts on Montreal’s estimated 48,000 smaller businesses, since most off-island businesses are mostly French-speaking already. “We’re not all crazy all the time, and we aren’t completely stupid,” he says.

Perhaps not. But many Montreal businesses say a return to the bad old days of language laws and “tongue troopers” is just what the province doesn’t need, given the importance of smaller business to the economy. “Why would they even care?” Bolduc says of the PQ initiative. “Even if they enforce it, it won’t change the fact that my bread and butter is English students from McGill.”

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