Language police get tough with the English-speaking patient

The old fear falling sick as Quebec's separatists insist French is spoken in the doctor's surgery, reports Catherine Pepinster

Quebec's language police, among the most zealous bureaucrats in North America, are confronting elderly English-speakers with the threat of having to explain their ailments in French.

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - SQL Server, T-SQL

£28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Data Analyst (SQL Server, T-SQL, data)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst...

Day In a Page

Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

In the driving seat: Peter Kay

Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road