Quebec’s language laws have long been controversial and a source of antagonism, but their implementation still has the power to annoy and shock. That’s the case with the announcement that a quaint Quebec town has reluctantly agreed to comply with an order from a language inspector to stop including one page of English-language information in its monthly bulletin to ratepayers. It’s an order so petty and unnecessary that it amounts not to the protection of a language but to an ominous government overreach into common courtesy and mutual respect.
The story takes place in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, pop. 10,000, a bedroom and service town in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal. It’s a mostly French place ; at 5 per cent of the population, English-speakers only number about 500. But they have been an integral part of local history, as evidenced by the presence of an Anglican church and a synagogue. The town has even erected plaques honouring anglophones’ contribution.
With only one person in 20 speaking English, it cannot reasonably be argued that the order to stop publishing a small corner of the town bulletin in English has heroically staved off the imminent obliteration of the French language in Sainte-Agathe. The order will, in fact, have no impact whatsoever on the health of the French language anywhere in Quebec.
Its sole result has been to expose the penny-ante excesses of the province’s language laws. From the mayor on down, francophones in Sainte-Agathe have reacted with dismay to the order. They don’t like being forced by their government to insult and marginalize their neighbours. The mayor, thankfully and tellingly, has found a work-around, promising to continue to provide English-language information on the town website, and to publish the information excised from the bulletin in the local English-language newspaper.
Martin Bergeron, a spokesman for the Office québécois de la langue française, counter-argues that if everything is bilingual, then French isn’t the official language of the province. But Sainte-Agathe was never bilingual. Its municipal government simply preserved a proportionate part of its official life in English out of respect for a cherished minority population. The people who enforce Quebec’s language laws have good examples to follow in the townsfolk of Sainte-Agathe, but instead continue to choose to pursue the narrowest and most mean-spirited avenue open to them.