protect French language Quebec low-wage workers service industry

Petty power tripping with low-wage workers doesn’t protect the French language in Quebec

“I find it deeply frustrating to watch people who (justifiably) remind anyone who’ll listen about a time when francophones were shamed for not being able to speak English doing the very same thing now to newcomers unable to speak adequate French.”

When my mom was a newly arrived Greek immigrant in the ’60s, she had yet to master French or English. Like so many other newcomers, she was figuring it out as she went along. Once, she told me, while making her first tentative steps to help my dad at their restaurant, she served a man his breakfast and he asked for another napkin. My mom, unable to understand, brought him a fork. “A napkin, please,” he repeated. When he realized that she didn’t understand he reached out to another table, grabbed a napkin and smiling repeated the word slowly for my mom. She now knew what a napkin was and how to pronounce it. 

“Serviette,” was the word she learned that day.

When my mom told me that story, she was laughing. “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I wanted so badly to communicate with people, but all I could do was smile and guess. Thank God that man took pity on me.” 

That story remains fresh in my mom’s memory almost 60 years later, but thanks to the kindness of a total stranger she shared it with a smile, not the bitterness and embarrassment of someone who was mistreated or made to feel like ‘less than’ simply because they hadn’t yet mastered a new language. 

That memory popped into my head recently when I saw some very egregious Twitter declarations targeting low-wage workers and their apparent inability to speak French. I’m happy to report that I also saw a lot of push-back, which reassured me greatly of most Quebecers’ empathy and understanding.

Stop punching down on people, please

I won’t mention the specific people who tweeted their grievances, because it’s ultimately irrelevant. Suffice it to say, they all enjoy large online platforms and felt comfortable denigrating people with a lot less power than them. 

First, it was a popular comedian a few months ago who complained about a RONA delivery worker who brought him his terrasse furniture set and who, according to him, didn’t speak a word of French. 

More recently, a former journalist tweeted that a man who worked at the fruit and vegetable section of his local IGA (he made sure to mention which supermarket and which department) couldn’t address him in French and was “sweating” at being asked questions by him. 

Finally, a popular pundit completed the trifecta of language complaints by tweeting that her Uber Eats driver couldn’t speak any French. 

(Sidenote: When’s the last time you ever said anything more than “Hello” or “Thank you” to your Uber Eats driver? I barely have a chance to wave at them before they run off to their next order.) 

All three of these people will probably insist that their main concerns are the decrease of French in Montreal, their right to be served in their language and Quebec businesses’ inability to hire employees who can communicate in French. 

What’s reasonable and what isn’t 

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect and to want Quebec businesses to provide service in Quebec’s official and (most certainly) majority language. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for store employees to be able to respond to customer’s questions, complaints or concerns in their language. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for business owners to do everything they can to ensure customers get served in their language. I don’t even think it’s unreasonable for a customer who feels strongly enough about not being served in their language reaching out to the business owner and making their discontent clear by either filing a complaint with the OQLF or management itself, or simply letting the manager know they will take their business elsewhere. It’s a free market, after all, and money talks — and it can certainly walk.

But let me share with you what I do think is unreasonable, tactless and lacking in compassion. I think it’s extremely unreasonable to mistreat, ridicule, abuse or identify employees who failed to speak adequate French by sharing their place of work on social media and therefore leaving them exposed to others who may choose to mistreat them, too, or even possibly leading to their dismissal. We’re not talking about the Michael Rousseaus of the world here, need I remind you, but about people with no power. 

I think it’s petty and small to taunt, make uncomfortable, stress or mistreat a low-wage employee trying to make an honest living and who’s performing a thankless job most of us don’t want to do, just so we can somehow pat ourselves on the back and pretend we did something for the protection of the French language. You did absolutely nothing for the protection of the French language other than associate the French language with hostility and rudeness for this person who, 9 out of 10 times, is a newcomer trying to learn it. 

How you treat those with less power reveals your character

Having grown up in the restaurant industry, raised by two hard-working immigrant parents who spoke adequate but not accent-free or grammatically correct French and English, I learned early on in life one very important lesson: how people treat those in the service industry or those who they consider beneath them and without any power may not say everything about them, but it says a lot.

And, no, your frustration at someone not speaking your language or your insecurity (legitimate or otherwise) about the fragility of your language doesn’t justify punching down on low-wage workers delivering your food or your furniture, or store employees stocking the shelves. These are people who may not have the linguistic ability or the financial safety net to punch back, and who are in no way responsible for management hiring practices or our massive labour shortages. Where’s our empathy here? What’s wrong with wanting to provide for your family and pay for your rent and groceries while also trying to learn a new language and integrate into a new society? Where do we draw the line at language protection? Are some of you comfortable with denying people a chance at making a living because they haven’t yet mastered the official language? Because I’m not.

I also find it deeply frustrating to watch people who (justifiably) keep reminding anyone who will listen about a time when francophones in Quebec were made to feel inadequate and ashamed for not being able to speak English doing the very same thing now to newcomers unable to speak adequate French. The very same power dynamics are at play, sadly.  

Labour shortages require patience

Empathy and compassion and even a modicum of logic requires people to understand that we are experiencing historic labour shortages. More people are now retiring in Quebec than entering the workforce, and the pandemic has only made things worse. Quebec employers are desperate for workers and their sheer desperation at filling these positions often means that they’re hiring people who may not meet all the requirements they would prefer. In many cases, these low-wage jobs are being filled by new immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees (some of them are barely literate in their own language and you’re asking them to master yours in a few months?), or university students from other provinces or countries. 

In other words, employers simply can’t afford to be picky. Is that ideal? Obviously not. But what would you prefer? For businesses to remain open and contribute to society by continuing to provide the services and the products that we need — even if they’re occasionally forced to hire people who may not have mastered French yet and are in the process of learning, like that poor IGA supermarket employee was doing? Or do we want businesses to shut down temporarily — or, even worse, permanently — because of lack of staff? 

It’s not by harassing random strangers, whose lives and circumstances you know absolutely nothing about, in some perverted attempt at a public flogging that you’ll either protect French, promote French or make those targeted in any way, shape, or form more inclined to try to speak it the next time around. 

Are we going to recognize that French-language acquisition comes from better investments where it counts (free and easily accessible French courses, more French teachers, the promotion of French culture) or we going to spend our free time pretending to be shocked at hearing occasional English or other languages in, of all places, Montreal, the province’s most multilingual and multicultural city and the place where most new immigrants arrive and reside in? 

The stats are clear: More people than ever speak French in Quebec these days, but for some it will never be enough until no other language is heard in public. I’m sorry but that’s never going to happen, and the sooner we realize it, the sooner we can collectively place the emphasis on ensuring everyone has access to and wants to speak French, regardless of how many other languages they also speak at home or in public. 

Better integration and francisation efforts are a win-win for Quebec because it benefits both newcomers who desperately want to fit in and eases the concerns of those worried about the French language losing ground. 

How you treat people when they are learning your language is how they will remember you and the society they’re being introduced to and welcomed into. These petty power trips may feel therapeutic for those wanting to vent and let off steam, but they accomplish nothing of substance for the protection of the French language while also painting us as an unwelcoming and rigid place. I don’t think anyone wants that. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.