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Don't Speak Creole in Quebec If You Know What's Good For You

Quebec’s French language police are up to their old xenophobic tricks again. This time, the victims are two people who were speaking Haitian Creole.
December 26, 2013, 4:50pm

From a protest for and against the Charter of Values. via Flickr.

Quebec’s French language police are up to their old xenophobic tricks again. This time, the victims are two people who were speaking Haitian Creole—basically 18th century French, with some West African lingual spices—amongst themselves while on the job at a Montreal hospital, when someone complained. Johanne Gagnon, the hospital’s director of communications, told the Montreal Gazette, “Something happened in a ward where some employees—probably two Haitians—were talking to each other in front of a Québécois employee, a francophone, who didn’t understand what the two people were saying because those two employees were speaking in Creole.”


Even though it is not against the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) to speak a language besides French on the job (so long as you're not speaking to the public and it doesn't purposefully exclude coworkers), the OQLF still set a December 20 deadline for the Hôpital Rivière-des-Prairies to do something, lest they risk a thorough investigation from the OQLF and as much as a $20,000 fine. That prompted the hospital to hold a staff meeting on December 10 to remind their workers to speak French.

“This is intolerance,” said Patrick Gilles, director general of the Jeune Chambre de Commerce Haïtienne to the Gazette. “It makes no sense. The OQLF is exaggerating. There is no reason to reprimand anyone over this.”

In this specific instance, the two unidentified Haitians speak French, so it’s not a simple case of “shut up and learn French!” In fact, Quebec has actually been encouraging more immigrants like Haitians­ (who already speak French) to move to Quebec, while making it tougher for non-francophones to immigrate, so punishing these people who work in French at a French hospital makes no sense whatsoever.

I talked to Jean-Paul Perreault, president of a French advocacy organization called Impératif français, who told me that while there is no law against speaking another language on the job, the problem occurs when it conflicts with the rights established in Bill 101. “There are many, many organizations in Montreal and Outaouais where the fundamental rights of citizens are not respected—the right to receive service in French, the right to be informed in French, the right to work in French—and the Office québécoise de la langue française does not have sufficient resources to intervene.” Which, I suppose, explains the six percent budget increase, to $24.7 million, the OQLF got this year.

While I agree that it’s important to preserve and protect the French language from the rest of Canada and North America, upholding these outdated laws —which come with huge fines—in 2013 seems a bit silly. Unfortunately, the embarrassing and “overzealous” enforcing of Quebec’s language laws are occurring more frequently what with the OQLF making recent stinks over dangerous, culture-threatening words like “pasta,” “takeout,” and caffe.

But this isn’t the only recent example of language posing a problem in the workplace. This past June a young bilingual Anglophone quit her job at an IGA grocery store because her manager repeatedly told her to stop speaking English at work, even in the lunchroom. Strangely, the OQLF didn't react to this incident. In fact, the OQLF spokesperson at the time said that there is no provision in Bill 101 that prohibits speaking another language besides French amongst employees on the job. The spokesperson highlighted this again when speaking to the media about #creolegate. Why then, in a situation so similar, did the OQLF choose to intimidate the hospital with a fine?

Whether or not the two Creole-speakers were doing something more than talking casually amongst themselves is still under investigation, but the likelihood of them actually breaking any language laws aside from the unspoken “don’t be different” one seems low. The danger here for the OQLF, and Quebec francophones in general, is that the language police’s overzealousness is not only pushing out Anglophones, but French speaking immigrants as well. There needs to be some real collective thought in Quebec on what they want the OQLF to do, and how they can do it without seeming like hyper-sensitive xenophobic jerks.