Montreal Biodôme’s scarlet macaw named Bouton “will be deported to the Toronto Zoo next Friday after speaking only English during a government inspection,” The Beaverton reported in July 2013. The newspaper quoted a government official as saying the bird “asked for crackers, not craquelins,” which violated Quebec laws requiring French in the workplace.
None of that happened, of course; The Beaverton is something for Canadians The onion is for Americans. Although Bouton’s story was ‘a parody’, The economist According to reports, the faithful were still ‘shocked’ by it. Such is Quebec’s reputation for zealously defending the primacy of the French language.
Montreal, Canada’s most bilingual city, is a place where English and French coexist easily. When you approach a bagel shop or poutine hideout, you’ll most likely be greeted with “bonjour, hello”: an invitation to a choose-your-own adventure that recognizes the colorful city’s linguistic diversity. Teenagers on the street constantly switch between French and English, interweaving American slang.
In many ways, this linguistic diversity is something that the provincial government has been trying to prevent for decades in efforts to preserve spoken French. Under British rule in the 19th century, French Canadians lost much of their political power and language rights. They eventually became Canada’s linguistic minority. From the 1960s onwards, the sovereigntist Parti Québécois was founded and the Front de libération du Québec, a militant separatist group, committed terrorist acts. The so-called Silent Revolution of that decade saw the secularization of the government, the creation of a welfare state and pressure for Quebec’s independence.
The 1977 Charter of the French Language established French as the official language of the province and established a vast set of rules to enforce the use of French in “work, instruction, communication, commerce and business”. According to Quebec’s Ministry of Culture and Communications, the language measures “are all aimed at the same goal: maximizing the French language’s chances to thrive on a continent inhabited by nearly three hundred million English speakers.”
It is a noble goal, and a personal one. My family goes back hundreds of years in Quebec. I have countless childhood memories of family gatherings in the countryside, all the talk about hearty farm food in French. Losing your language cuts the central cord that connects you to your ancestors, and French in Quebec is no different in that regard.
But strict language regulation is counterproductive, especially when the goal is a happy and cohesive population. It would be impossible to regulate the way 8.8 million Quebecers speak without engaging in some foolish and strange battle. The government has tried to ban Montrealers’ favorite greeting, “bonjour, hello,” including at private businesses. A British-themed restaurant in Montreal was cited for using the term Fish and chips on the menu and hanging a “gentlemen’s” sign on the bathroom door. A manager opening a newly renovated store [Adidas] store said a few apologetic words in French and then switched completely to ‘cooler’ English,’ reported the Montreal Gazette, which caused a big stir. The provincial premier even denounced the episode in the National Assembly.
Regulation hangs over every area of public life. Companies with 25 or more employees must register with the Office Québécois de la Langue Française (OQLF), or the Quebec Board of the French Language, to confirm that they use French throughout the workplace. An employer may not dismiss an employee because he only speaks French. Radio stations must adhere to the quota for French-language songs. Concerned citizens can report violations of the Charter of the French Language online or by telephone.
The highly publicized incidents of language conflict reflect disturbing trends. A survey was conducted for The Montreal Journal in 2018 indicated that one in two English-speaking respondents aged 18 to 35 saw relations between English speakers and French speakers as controversial. Between 1971 and 2021, approximately 600,000 anglophones left Quebec for other provinces. A number of major companies also left for greener pastures (ahem, Toronto). “Bonjour, hello” may be an olive branch between the Anglos and the Francos in Quebec, but peace is becoming increasingly difficult to keep.
The language policy in Quebec is strict and is becoming increasingly strict. The controversial Bill 96, passed in May 2022, further regulates companies and individuals. Companies with 25 or more employees may need to submit regular reports to the government on their use of French. If the government receives a complaint that a workplace is not using French, it can launch an investigation, “and inspectors can search and seize documents without a warrant,” according to Politics. Executives from more than 150 companies sent a letter to Premier François Legault warning that the law could seriously harm Quebec’s economy and deter investors.
As for Bouton the parrot, reality really can be as strange as fiction. In 1996, a pet store customer in Napierville, Quebec, complained that a parrot named Peek-a-Boo spoke only English. The customer even threatened to file a complaint with the OQLF, according to the bird’s owner, Francesca Barron. The complaint was never filed and according to the Montreal Gazettethe parrot never learned French.
With the adoption of the Charter of the French Language, Kentucky Fried Chicken had to abandon its English label. It became Poulet Frit Kentucky in Quebec.
A former member of the Front de libération du Québec, a far-left separatist group, carried out a series of firebombings at several Second Cup cafe locations because the Canadian-based chain’s name was in English. Second Cup added the words Coffee shortly afterwards to the signs.
Quebec’s language enforcement agency notified Massimo Lecas, owner of Montreal-based Buonanotte, that his restaurant was in violation of its charter. Officials pointed to the Italian words pasta, calamariAnd appetizer on Lecas’ menu and said he would have to replace them with French words to comply with provincial language legislation. Although the government insisted it was merely a response to citizen complaints, the incident caused so much backlash and publicity that it became known as pasta.
The Quebec Supreme Court ruled that major retailers did not violate the charter if their store signs displayed trademarked names in languages other than French. The plaintiffs included Best Buy, Costco, Walmart and Old Navy.
A new policy mandates that only music by Quebec artists can be played in provincial government buildings and on government-run telephone lines. “The time for royalty-free elevator music is over,” Quebec Culture Minister Nathalie Roy said.