The president of the Quebec Anti-Pasta Language Task Force, as seen here.
For us native English-speaking Quebecers, the province’s language laws have always seemed kind of ridiculous. At best it’s a nuisance, at worst a vile social engineering tool designed to extinguish our ever-more precarious presence here (a lot of us are paranoid too).
The most ludicrous tool the provincial government has at its disposal is the Office Québécois de la langue française. The OQLF’s main preoccupation is ensuring English-language commercial signage is significantly less visible than French signage. They do that by going into small businesses (big multinationals can be exempt) and poke around and take pictures of offending things like posters, blackboard signs, menus, and even decorative posters and art. The inspector can then issue the business owner a fine. It’s a constant source of irritation and amusement, especially for outsiders.
But last week, things took a turn for the very, very stupid when an OQLF inspector, aka language cop, found that the trendy, tacky Italian restaurant Buonanotte was in violation of the law because it contained Italian instead of French words on its menu. Namely, “pasta.” Porco dio! Thus the hashtag #pastagate was born.
For Buonanotte, the affair ended quickly. After a widespread outcry among both anglos and francos, the OQLF admitted that its inspector may have been overzealous and that no further action would be taken. But not before the story broke internationally: Fox, MSN, Italy’s Corriere della Sera, GlobalPost and other outlets ran incredulous, bemused stories about the affair. One study said it generated 60 times more media attention than recently elected Parti Québécois Premier Pauline Marois’s trip to New York.
But in the four or five days since, a bunch of Montreal restaurateurs have been complaining about language cops in their midst, including owners and celebrity chefs like Joe Beef’s Dave McMillan, Maurice Holder of the Brasserie Holder, and Derek Damann of Maison Publique.
With the separatist PQ elected last summer, it’s tempting to think that it’s behind a new crackdown on language. But it’s not. The OQLF has reported steady increases in the number of inspections over the past three years, when the non-separatist Liberals were in power, with over 4,000 in 2011-12 alone. And while only a handful of merchants end up with fines, they can look at getting dinged between $250 and $1,500. However, the PQ did boost the Office’s budget six percent in their December budget, making it one of the very few government agencies to actually get more money.
What’s most galling about this whole idiotic episode, though, is its total pointlessness. Most anglos in Quebec—the real ones, the ones born here and who work here and will probably die here—can agree that some measure is needed to protect French. An EKOS poll commissioned by the CBC shows that 58 percent of anglos feel welcome here and 85 percent think it’s important to know about French culture. You still have your angryphones who hate everything the PQ does and stands for, but by and large language isn’t an issue day-to-day until some asshole stirs shit up. It’s tiresome and boring, like Israel/Palestine but without the guns and religion.
But the language crap isn’t going away, even if the PQ is sounding less militant these days. In her own typically awkward way, Pauline has been reaching out to the anglo community. She wants us all to get along, something she repeated often on the campaign trail last year. She appointed a minister for anglophones, Jean-François Lisée, who swears anglos are welcome here. He also said municipalities won’t lose their bilingual status if its anglo population drops below 50 percent (if it’s under 40 percent that might change though). He even gave some hip-hop guy $20,000 to produce a shitty song called “Notre Home.”
And yet remarkably, we aren’t going around giving each other two-tongued blowjobs just yet. According to the same EKOS poll, 84 percent of anglos think the PQ would limit their rights given the opportunity, and 42 percent considered leaving the province after the PQ won. Oh, and on election night, a lighting tech was shot and killed and another was injured at the Montreal venue where Pauline was holding her election victory rally, allegedly by an unhinged anglophone screaming about language issues. Richard Bain, the suspected shooter, says Jesus is his lawyer.
So, there’s still work to do in calming the fires of potential messianic litigation and spaghetti-related culture battles. Vested interests and the professionally outraged are keeping the language divide alive, and making Quebec an international laughingstock when things like pastagate blow up. Hopefully, aging as they are, they’ll die off soon and let the rest of us get on with our shit.