First published in The Economist (July 30, 2013) entitled “Polly Wants Un Craquelin” ☛ Earlier this month Canadians were shocked to learn that Bouton, an English-speaking parrot at the Montreal Biodome in the French-speaking province of Quebec, was being deported to Toronto following a surprise visit to the zoo by a representative of the Office Québécois de la Langue Française (OQLF), the body charged with ensuring the primacy of French in Quebec. The story, published by the Beaverton, a satirical magazine, turned out to be a spoof. But Quebec’s linguistic intolerance is all too real.
Just ask Xavier Ménard. Mr Ménard wanted to list his firm with the province’s company registrar but was rejected. The reason? His company’s name, Wellarc, sounds too English. Mr Menard’s protestations that it is a portmanteau of the French words web, langage, logo, artistique, and compagnie fell on deaf ears. Such misplaced verbal intransigence last week prompted Mr Ménard to vent his frustration on YouTube (in French). The video has gone viral. Mr Ménard’s predicament is no isolated incident. Quebec has strict language laws, zealously enforced by the OQLF. One statute makes French the “normal and everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business”. It also authorises the OQLF to “act on its own initiative or following the filing of a complaint”.
The number of such complaints rose from 2,780 in 2009 to over 4,000 last year. In the past few months alone the OQLF has ruled that French shop signs be printed in font sizes three times larger than those in English, told an Italian restaurant to substitute pâtes for pasta on its menu (arguments that pasta is a perfectly good Italian word apparently cut no ice) and ordered a popular frozen-yogurt chain to replace its spoons with cuillères. Those who fail to comply face fines of up to C$20,000 ($19,500). Although the rules exempt trademarks, in 2011 the OQFL controversially decided that public shop signs constitute displays of business names, which are not protected. That would force big retailers with English-sounding names to change their shop fronts, at considerable cost. Best Buy, Costco, Gap, Old Navy, Guess and Wal-Mart therefore asked the Superior Court of Quebec for an authoritative interpretation of the law. The ruling is expected in October.
The Parti Québécois (PQ), which currently runs Quebec, has not stopped there. It wants to be able to refuse to grant provincial-government contracts to federally regulated companies, such as banks, telecoms firms or railways, unless they abide by the rules. Pauline Marois, the province’s PQ premier, would like all catalogues and brochures to have a French version, and to extend the requirement that any company with 50 or more workers prove the use of French throughout its business to all firms with more than 25 employees. In 1976, when the PQ, which is responsible for the linguistic legislation, first came to power, around 800,000 of Quebec’s 6.2m people were English-speakers. By 2011 that fell to fewer than 600,000, even as the province’s population rose to 8m. There may be plenty of reasons why Anglophone Quebeckers have upped sticks. Fleeing before they meet Bouton’s hypothetical fate could be one.