Montréal Protéger le français langue française

How to protect the French language without weaponizing it

Gotcha journalism may get clicks, but it doesn’t protect French or ease decades-old tensions over divisive language politics.

Even in the middle of a global pandemic, one of the biggest stories in Quebec last week was a Journal de Montréal investigative story about the language spoken by retail clerks in many downtown Montreal stores, which either welcomed clients solely in English or were unable to provide service in French when requested.

I could sit here and argue that as a longtime Montrealer this has never been my own personal experience, but I don’t feel like arguing percentages and anecdotal evidence — for the simple reason that I believe that even one business unable to provide service in French to clients is one business too many.

“Sorry, I don’t speak French,” should never be an acceptable response in a francophone province. I suspect that, if one were to remove the endless back-and-forth of Quebec’s tiresome identity politics, almost everyone — regardless of which linguistic side of the fence they find themselves on — would agree with this, too.

Having acknowledged that, I would, however, welcome more scientific studies with stricter methodology. Forgive my wariness about hidden bias and sensationalism, but Journal de Montréal belongs to the same media empire that brought us such timeless classics as “Tous les Québécois mangent Halal” and was responsible for creating a firestorm of controversy when in 2017 it claimed — falsely — that two Montreal mosques had requested a construction company remove its female workers from a nearby site. They’ve been known to exaggerate and inflame public opinion with hyperbole when it comes to language and religion.

While not necessarily trying to minimize the report’s conclusions, because I do believe they point to a factual problem, there are many of its elements that point to “gotcha journalism.” The timing is also suspect, as the CAQ prepares to roll out stricter language legislation.

Sensationalism sells, but solves nothing

Is it disturbing that some downtown businesses seem unable to provide service in French? Absolutely! But why were primarily big-box, chain and international stores targeted for this report? These are the kind of downtown stores that are often staffed by young foreign students. I don’t think that’s accidental. A few streets or a few boroughs down and I doubt the results would have been remotely the same.

This is exactly what the second part of the investigative report (which, I suspect, few people read) concluded. But it’s the report’s first part that populist politicians and pundits will focus on. Are the results an accurate indicator of a widespread problem that needs to be tackled, or of a temporary reality where big-box store managers are desperately trying to find staff at a time when many opt to work from home for health reasons, and the pandemic has left owners struggling to survive in a downtown core that is practically a ghost town? Context matters.

Of course, context matters little when the goal is sensationalistic journalism, which, in turn, provides endless, angst-riddled fodder for the usual opinion pundits to divide, antagonize and amplify everything into a crisis. It may benefit them, but it does nothing to benefit the protection of the French language.

Protect French wisely

I love living in a multicultural, polyglot city. But I love that Montreal’s heart and soul is French. I want to see customers greeted and served in French, regardless of what the customer’s go-to language is. If for no other reason than this is what distinguishes us from the rest of the country. When the pandemic is over and tourists return, I’m fairly certain it’s not our exotic ability to speak English that will have attracted them.

That having been said, Montreal (particularly its downtown core) is simply not like the rest of Quebec, and to pretend that it is requires willful blindness. A city where the majority of its bilingual and trilingual residents have one or two parents born abroad, a city that serves as a landing pad for all of Quebec’s new immigrants, is a city you’re bound to hear a lot of English and other international languages spoken. If that causes some people distress (statistics point to older people), perhaps it’s time to stop confusing linguistic insecurity with linguistic demise.  

To protect and promote French, we need to stop allowing certain Quebecers from treating this issue as a weapon they brandish; a political tool they manipulate. No attacks, no finger pointing, no recriminations and accusations, but real solutions for real problems affecting the protection of our common language. Shaming people for using other languages in their private lives does not protect French. Ambushing business owners who have invested their money here without trying to understand what the issues are is momentarily satisfying and potentially of use to opinion pundits, but it does nothing to solve the long-term issues of the survival of French. Are business owners unable to find workers? Are francization and integration resources lacking? Are foreign students comprising most of the downtown core’s employees, and if so, how do we help both them and businesses ensure they can communicate in basic French?

That unilingual foreign student working that part-time minimum-wage job at Uniqlo or Victoria’s Secret doesn’t understand your gripe. It’s not personal to them. It’s our collective responsibility to make them (and their employers) better understand what’s at stake and help them master and prioritize basic French. You catch more bees with honey, not vinegar. Incentivize, don’t penalize.

Solutions to the protection of French need to be discussed in a fair, transparent, unbiased, non-accusatory manner. Don’t allow language insecurity to be weaponized by the usual culprits who see every problem or roadblock as a slap in the face for all francophones and open season on Canada, anglophones and allophones. No one benefits from this — least of all the French language.

Don’t make the mistake of only listening to those who try to position themselves as saviours and defenders of French. The rest of us want to protect it, too. Last year, Liberal MNA Greg Kelley tabled a motion to give all Quebecers access to free French lessons, which I think is a fantastic idea. I have yet to see any action on that. Why?

Be wary of politicians and pundits with an axe to grind. They rarely notice the 364 problem-free days of interactions in this province. They notice the one day with the issue. And that’s what makes news headlines. The vast majority of francophone, anglophone and allophone Quebecers, who interact with one another daily with respect and compassion, aren’t interesting enough for the front pages.

The OQLF is not out to get you

Anyone who reads my columns knows I’m not Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette’s biggest fan. But when he says, “French is the common language here in Quebec, and we need to give the OQLF the resources to enforce the French language,” I have nothing to reproach him for.

The reason I never commented when the Office québécois de la langue française recently received $5-million is because there isn’t anything that controversial about it. Why should the fact that a major government organization being allocated funds to ensure Quebecers are served in Quebec’s common language be the subject of controversy? Sure, the optics don’t look good in the middle of a pandemic, but that money was earmarked back in March before COVID-19 had altered our lives and our priorities.

We tend to forget, and I fear some might not even know because the organization is so often hijacked for political purposes, but the OQLF was a public organization established by Jean Lesage’s Liberal government. Its main aim was — and continues to be — to protect and promote the French language. That includes everything from defining official terminology, monitoring the status of French in the province, to helping business owners navigate language laws. There is nothing inherently political or partisan about them.

Unfortunately, much of the valid and good work the OQLF does is overshadowed by the occasional clumsy overzealousness of certain agents, as well as the number of unfounded complaints that exasperated merchants are subjected to. Because the organization operates on complaints filed by citizens, it continuously runs the risk of being used as a tool for settling scores between disgruntled consumers who can easily weaponize a government service for their own petty grudge matches. Not surprisingly, OQLF statistics show a good chunk of complaints are unfounded. Of the ones judged valid, 95 per cent are resolved without resorting to legal sanctions. What this means is that both the government agency and businesses cooperate and work together to do what needs to be done to prioritize the French language, and an overwhelming majority of Quebecers don’t ever hear about it.

As a sidenote, I think some diversity would benefit the eight-member OQLF board. Would it kill the government to include — at the very least — one person who’s been on or who’s had parents on the receiving end of an OQLF visit, just to be able to understand what it feels like? Openness is a two-way street.

Stop projecting, start working together

In Quebec’s routine linguistic battles, what the public so often gets to hear about are the fluke incidents, the Pasta-gates and Espresso-gates, the shocking exceptions about someone not understanding any French. And that makes for emotionally charged newspaper headlines and is weaponized – both by those who insist on calling the OQLF the “language police” and by those who think Quebec anglophones and allophones wake up every morning trying to devise ways to eradicate the French language in a province they paradoxically have chosen to live, work, raise kids in and probably die in. What a bunch of inept villains!

No one is the enemy here, although those who seek to manufacture crises would have you conveniently believe that. Francophones need to stop treating Quebec’s anglophones and allophones as an existential threat to their language and as an enemy they need to defeat, and Quebec’s anglophones and allophones need to acknowledge and empathize with the fact that the French language in Quebec and Canada is fragile and will always be in need of protection, and get on board with helping to do exactly that. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.