The Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) has put itself on an inevitable journey to self-destruction in the last two weeks. The enormous list of absurd judgements from the province’s language police that have come to light are a sign that the Office has gone off the deep end with power. The resulting social media outcry has put the OQLF on an irreversible and unintended path to its own demise. While they have acknowledged that perhaps they went too far in some cases, the damage has already been done and any legitimate authority the OQLF ever had has now vanished.
And why wouldn’t it? “Pastagate” started when a Montreal Italian restaurant was told that the term pasta violated the Quebec Charter of the French Language as it was not a proper French term. The reasoning is that French should be the normal everyday language of Quebec, and the Italian term pasta is not understood by everyone in the province. Apparently, Quebecers are too stupid to understand what an internationally recognized dish eaten for nearly a millennia means on a menu. The first news of this was indeed shocking. Every subsequent new allegations since pasta broke the ice has been treated as a farce. Most notably, a Plateau-area bike shop owner who was told to modify a number of decorative pieces because they contained foreign languages on them protested the agency’s ruling by covering each sign with a note saying: “Warning. Non-French poster or sign underneath. Read at your own discretion.” A brilliant tactic for turning the tables on the OQLF and showing the stupidity of such a ruling (one of the offending pieces appears to be a child’s drawing.) And while this has not yet been an issue, my own research has found that every movie theatre in Quebec is at risk of a language complaint: popcorn is not allowed, only the terms maïs soufflé and maïs éclaté are approved by the government for use.
The office was created in 1961 to protect the French language and ensure than French is used predominantly in the province. And while I’m a proud bilingual Canadian, I recognize the need for French predominance in many aspects of public life in Quebec, yet that shouldn’t come at the destruction and harassment of other languages, particularly when the offending words have such little consequences to society. Instead of pursuing its original goal of making sure every Quebecer can get services in French, they have taken to bullying businesses for the most insignificant uses of languages other than ‘the chosen language.’ On/off labels on switches are no longer acceptable, even handwritten lists used only by chefs in a kitchen – away from the public’s eyes – can only be in French as well. These cases themselves are violations of French Charter, which assures a “spirit of fairness and open-mindedness, respectful of the institutions of the English-speaking community of Québec, and respectful of the ethnic minorities, whose valuable contribution to the development of Québec it readily acknowledges.” This government agency has no room for open-mindedness. Why else would they seek to find an alternative name for Quebec City’s vélo boulevard only because it’s a literal translation of the English term ‘bicycle boulevard’? Everything is a threat to them, and only an iron fist can cure it.
I have a theory as to why these benign fears over language are flourishing in Montreal. Montreal has come to a point where language barriers for Francophones are no longer a major issue. The city has come a long way from the 1960s where the minority Anglophone community controlled much of the commerce. Most Anglophone business owners today have come to accept the provision of Bill 101, such as having French signage and speaking French to customers. As they should. Yet, the fewer legitimate claims of language violations the OQLF receives, the more they have to pursue weak cases and go digging through restaurant menus. The OQLF must investigate the most absurd cases they receive if they want to keep receiving their yearly $19 million budget and keep their 248 jobs. Creating new divisions among Quebecers is a profitable business for them.
Their eventual demise comes from the fact that the OQLF has increasingly received harsh media criticism, from both Francophone and Anglophone news sources. With the media and people on social networks forcing the agency to admit their inspectors were “overzealous”, by backtracking on their opposition to the term ‘pasta’, and the continuous growth of foolish infractions, the agency has lost their legitimacy and authority. These cases have looks bad for them, and the more this happens, the less business owners will take them seriously. Also, as the number of legitimate claims of language violations fall, there is no longer a need for the government to intervene in language cases. If people are truly upset about a language issue, they can take it upon themselves to boycott the offenders or write a petition. That is how normal societies operate.
This is also a message to the ruling PQ minority that Quebecers are fed up with these pesky language issues. On the heels of new anger over the proposed Bill 14, which will strengthen language laws in Quebec and give the OQLF new powers, the OQLF has created a backlash that could affect support for the PQ. While the PQ and OQLF are not the same entity, they have ideologically similar goals and the PQ’s rhetoric may have inspired the OQLF to go beyond their mandate in the past, creating this whole mess in the first place. The OQLF’s actions will make it harder for Pauline Marois to legitimize giving them new powers under the proposed law.
The OQLF is on the wrong side of reality. Despite the rhetoric of the PQ and other sovereignist groups, the status of French in Quebec is secure. A study by the OQLF themselves found that 97% of Montreal businesses can provide service in French to customers, while an astonishing 93% can do the same in the most Anglophone part of the city. In the rest of the province, the number likely hovers over 99%. Wouldn’t the OQLF’s budget be better put towards French-language education? Something that would actually increase the use of French in the province?
The OQLF is no longer needed in Quebec. The 1960s goal of francization has been mostly achieved, and any remaining non-assimilated aspects of society are a sign of our multiculturalism, not a threat to the French language. Any more ridiculous citations given out by dictionary-yielding government bureaucrats will only threaten minorities in Quebec.
In consideration of all the media attention it has received lately, the OQLF has announced that they will review their complaints procedures to improve the quality of their services. In an ideal world, this would mean they’ll dismantle themselves completely.