Health care is the latest target of the "tongue troopers", as the English- speakers have dubbed the single-minded members of the Office de la Langue Francaise, whose job includes making sure that up to 90 per cent of signs in Quebec are in French and that the apostrophe is dispatched to oblivion.
The provincial government, dominated by the separatist Parti Quebecois, has asked the language police to investigate the use of English in health services, on the grounds that the right of Francophone workers to speak French in the workplace may be jeopardised. More than any other issue in the long-running language and separatism battle, however, this has distressed les Anglophones.
Doctors, nurses and patients have crowded public meetings to protest. For elderly English-speakers in particular, brought up in Quebec long before the separatist movement took control, the threat to access to health care in English is a terrible blow. "Imagine having to try and explain to a doctor that you have pains in your chest, you can't breathe, and you fear you have arthritis, in a language not your own," said one elderly woman last week, as she queued at her local branch of the Pharmaprix drug store. "I couldn't do it; I don't know how I'd manage."
A year and a half ago Quebec was just 52,000 votes away from seceding from the rest of Canada. Since then English-speakers have grown increasingly anxious about their future. "People are scared and worried," said Sharon Leslie, director of community development for the watchdog organisation, Alliance Quebec. "Families have been talking idly about moving away until now, but this health-care issue is what has really affected them. I've never seen such an outpouring of anger, concern and fear."
Fifty years ago, it was Francophones who believed their language was in danger of being wiped out, but today, thanks to tough legislation, French prevails everywhere. All children must be taught in French, unless their parents went to English schools in Quebec or can prove they are temporary residents. Newly-arrived immigrants from Italy, Africa and the Far East have no choice.
The Anglophones may be a minority, but the 1991 census showed that 716,000 Quebecers use English at home. Another 363,000 use neither of Canada's official languages. But in post offices, buses, museums, government offices, and shops - even English bookstores - the first language used must always be French. To the outsider, it can seem a welcome relief from the relentless onslaught of American language and culture. For those who live in Quebec, however, it can also hint at a growing intolerance in a nation with a reputation for multicultural understanding.
Sharon Leslie lives in the relaxed, mixed Montreal neighbourhood of Notre Dame de Grace, but there are indications here too of the tensions between Francophone and Anglophone, French and English. On Sherbrooke Street, the language police forced Young's Chinese food store to cover up the apostrophe in its sign, although it can still be seen underneath the extra paint. Competing flags - the maple leafs of Canada and the fleur de lys of Quebec - still hang from some windows, and in a snowbound side-street nearby, neighbours remain divided. Those who voted for separatism in 1995 no longer speak to those who voted to stay with Canada. "It was easy-going here, once," said Anne Duncan. "Something's been lost."
While car registration plates carry the motto Je me souviens - I remember - to remind Francophones of the surrender of Quebec to Britain in 1759, the entire conflict simply alienates others. For the Inuit and Crees, who lived in the wilder, northern territories of Quebec long before the British or the French colonised it, the increasing evidence of the province edging away from the rest of Canada is troubling. "It is being stated that, whether the Crees consent or not, we will be forcibly included in a new Quebec," said Matthew Coon-Come, chief of the Crees. "Our treaty with Canada was never intended to permit the international kidnapping of an entire people ... We have a right as a people to determine our own destiny."
More recent arrivals in Quebec have little time for conflicts over language at a time when the Montreal economy is stagnating and unemployment is at a record level. "What good is the mother tongue when you have no food to put on your own tongue?" demanded Andre Perron, an Algerian cab driver who fled the strife of his own country. "In the end for most people, it is money that is the universal language."