City Life Quebec: Ministry of silly talk tells us what to say

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The Independent Online
HERE, AT the heart of Quebec's battle to protect its French identity, they are making decisions of critical import. Andre Collin, director of linguistic services for L'Office de La Langue Francaise in Quebec's chilly capital is conjugating the verb faxer. "J'ai faxe? Tu vas faxer?" It does sound rather silly. Mr Collin and his team want people to stop faxing and start telecopie-ing instead.

There's more. One must not say "j'ai save" for a computer file (Mr Collin winces), but je l'ai sauvegarde. But one does clique with one's souris, or mouse. And please teleaverti a friend who is late; in Quebec, on ne "page" pas. One may wear a T-shirt.

But on no account are the Quebecois to send or receive e-mail. The Quebec government has decreed that its citizens must use the word "courriel" a compound word made from courrier electronique, the literal translation of electronic mail.

The practice of flooding e-mail, "spamming" in English, meanwhile is pollupostage, from pollution and public post.

L'Office, where Mr Collin is part of a crack team of highly trained experts who decide what Quebec will say, everywhere from the golf green to the mechanic's garage, is one crucial front in Quebec's ongoing battle to preserve its distinct society from the hoary masses of Anglais on either side.

In addition to the lexicographers and translators, there are jurists and philosophers and even an infamous squad of "tongue troopers", all of them striving to protect the province's French identity.

In 1977, a separatist Parti Quebecois government adopted the French Language Charter, better known as Bill 101. The law was designed to protect and bolster the supremacy of French in Canada's one French province where 82 per cent of the population is Franco- phone (many other provinces have large French-speaking populations).

It tackled everything from education (children had to be taught in French, unless both their parents had been educated in English in Quebec) to answering the phone (Bonjour before hello) and created the Commission de Protection to enforce it all.

Inevitably, the law produced intense friction, which endures today.

The small but vocal Anglophone population of Quebec claims to be the victim of discrimination (or, often, of lunacy - when, for example, the language police tell a coffee shop it must be called "Le Cafe Second Cup", instead of "Second Cup").

Last month, a Quebec court judge made a controversial decision about the "sign law", striking down the provision that French letters must be larger than English, because, she said, she was not convinced French still needed that protection. The government immediately appealed. Once again, the talk shows and newspapers were filled with bitter debate.

When merchants in Shawville, a small, predominantly English-speaking town, figured out last July that a language cop was out inspecting signs, they followed her around and jeered until she drove away in frustration. They were warned by the Commission de Protection to leave her alone - and to clean up their signs.

Gerald Paquette, spokesman for L'Office explained the process. When the commission receives a complaint, inspectors are sent to verify. They may measure, or take a photograph. If indeed there is a problem (French words on a sign must be twice the combined size of English and any other language) they give the vendor notice and ask for it to be corrected.

Mr Paquette says 96 per cent of cases are resolved immediately. If not, the merchant is sent a formal notice of contravention of the law - that takes care of all but 1 per cent of problems.

Then the commission advises the Minister of Justice to fine the offending merchant - typically $75 (pounds 33) - who can appeal in court. Of 5,000 complaints in 1997, he says, only 25 wound up in court. Those were violations "from businesses that mock the law, in what we call language militancy".

There are militants on both sides. Anglophone rights organisations organise boycotts of stores that don't put up English signs; hardliners on the other side picket big firms that don't have unilingual French names. Mr Paquette considers all of this unfortunate; Bill 101 has a simple purpose, he says.

"The Quebec legislature came to understand that if French was to survive in a country where English predominates, businesses would have to be obliged to use the language, it was not going to happen de facto," he explains. "There is only one place in North America where you can live in French and it's because of the law. It's our own affirmative action program. There are other places where you can speak French at home, at church - but not at work, not in the street."

Mr Paquette says the goal of L'Office is simply to tell people how to live in French. A totally random survey of seven offices found only two where telecopie is used, and only one where courriel is sent. But most of L'Office's work (such as the golf handbook) is a source of amusement, if it's noticed at all.

Stephanie Nolen