Colby Cosh on the real tension behind Bill 101 and the Pasta Affair

... So it’s OK to eat pasta, but not to name it?
Joe Beef restaurant is shown in Montreal, Saturday, February 23, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes.

In Sunday’s Montreal Gazette, Don Macpherson offers a convincing argument that Quebec’s pasta-police scandal has been deliberately obfuscated by the Parti Québécois ministry. The Office Québécois de la Langue Française, he suggests, did not misinterpret the law in a fit of “overzealousness”: he figures they probably interpreted it correctly, as written. The main text of Bill 101 specifically insists that menus must be written in French; there are exemptions in the regulations for packaging of “exotic product[s] or foreign specialt[ies]”, but the exemptions don’t make any mention of menus.

Macpherson suggests that, in the great tradition of Westminsterian democracy, some anonymous uncivil servant is being thrown under the proverbial autobus for following through on both the letter and the actual intention of the law. “The point here,” he says, “is not that the names should be illegal, but that in Quebec, they are”—along with, as other reporting has revealed, English-language knick-knacks on restaurant walls and English-language buttons on their telephones and microwave ovens. “Zealous” surveillance of businesses for linguistic purity, after all, isn’t some wacky unintended consequence of Bill 101. It’s the essence of the thing.

But couldn’t this analysis be carried up to another level? The original flashpoint of the scandal was the OQLF’s orders to a restaurant that had the word “pasta” on the menu. Given the premise of cultural protection that justifies the existence of an Office of the French Language, shouldn’t the real objection be to the presence of… the stuff itself? Isn’t Italian cuisine just as much of a homogenizing, globalist cultural intrusion as the English language? Montreal is famous for just about every kind of cooking that’s not authentically Québécois, from French-French food to bagels and smoked meat to Joe Beef’s spaghetti homard. Doesn’t this represent a definitive failure of the PQ’s cultural immune system?

This is perhaps the real tension behind the Pasta Affair. The purpose of Quebec language law is to reinforce the permanent “just visiting” status of every ethnic and cultural group other than French-Canadians, including Montreal Anglos who are hardly less indigenous to the province than its francophones. It is thought unseemly to make this explicit; how much less so to point out that when it comes to a hundred non-language aspects of culture, Montreal is a resplendent machine, possibly unique in the world, of cultural remixing and appropriation and innovation.

One might even say it’s the English language of cities. And, of course, it’s precisely the lack of engineered cultural defence that made the English language so dominant on the globe. (It was carried abroad on a vast military empire, but then, so were Dutch and Mongolian.) But the minute the Parti Québécois accepted that premise, it would have to, in the words of Douglas Adams, vanish in a puff of logic.