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  • Montreal bus driver celebrates 40 years of official bilingualism by throwing English-speaking passenger off her bus

    Bus No. 66 requires French as well as exact change
    Bus No. 66 requires French as well as exact change

    After a passenger asked her for the time in English, a Montreal bus driver called the police and ordered all twenty passengers to get off her bus. Her supervisors defended the action because, while English and French have been Canada's two official languages for exactly forty years, French and French alone is the official language of the province of Québec.

    The passenger, Muhammed Ahmad Munir, a Pakistani graduate student at McGill University who has only been in Canada for a few months, speaks English, Urdu, Punjabi, and Arabic. He has learned to say, "Bonjour," but he still hasn't mastered "Quelle heure est-il?" or any of the other French phrases required for negotiating the city's public transportation system.

    When the driver answered Munir's question in French, he replied that he didn't speak French, and she responded in English, "I don't speak English." According to Munir, "I then told her that she just showed me that she does speak English, and that's when she really got angry." The driver, apparently alarmed by her "aggressive" Muslim passenger, called the cops, cleared the bus, and warned the bus behind her not to pick up any of her stranded passengers.

    Although he is investigating the incident, Michel Labrecque, the head of the Société de transport de Montréal, defended the driver's action because "French is the language of work" in Québec. Labrecque acknowledged that many bus drivers are bilingual, and that bilingual drivers tend to be placed on routes covering tourist areas and the English-speaking suburbs. But he also insisted that it would be against the law to require any of the drivers to actually speak English even if they can, "Ça, c'est interdite."

    Forty years ago this month Canada passed the law making English and French the nation's two official languages and giving every citizen the right to be addressed by federal employees in either one. A recent poll timed to coincide with this anniversary found that overall, 59% of Canadians think that bilingualism has been successful. In addition, reports suggest that most residents of Montréal are content to leave the language politics to politicians. They manage to get along just fine with one another, whatever language they speak: "In everyday community life, language problems are the small change of cosmopolitan co-existence, and Montrealers take them in stride. Even at times of heightened language tension, the friction tended to show up at the political level, while neighbourhood life mostly remained serene."

    But that poll on attitudes toward bilingualism also found that 92% of Quebecers believed that services in Montréal must be available in both languages, something which the incident on Bus 66 shows not to be the case. That's because in 1977 Quebec passed loi 101, la charte de la langue française, which makes French the province's sole official language and establishes an Office of the French Language to enforce its various provisions:

    • all government employees must speak French
    • everyone has the right to use French at work and in any place of business;  
    • all children have the right to learn in French;   
    • all signs must be in the official language, though they may use another language as well so long as the French is more prominent 

    And now, at least in Montréal, where French and English speakers generally get along just fine, no one can qualify to drive a bus unless they can say, "I don't speak English," in English.

    Sign reads,

    The OQLF, Montréal’s language police, enforces the provisions of the province’s French Language Charter

tinkerstewart@gmail.com Sep 13, 2009 9:01 pm
I think the bus driver went overboard to be rude to someone ignorant of the language. How can that be friendly? And her colleagues stand up for her? Quelle gaucherie! I'll stay away from that foreign country for sure! Tom Stewart in Beautiful Friendly Oregon USA!
dcblair@gmail.com Sep 13, 2009 9:02 pm
This incident, but more strikingly the driver's boss's defense of it, illustrates why tourism in Quebec will be forever limited! Further, the boss's response, vis a vis placement of bilingual drivers on tourist routes, makes one wonder about the racism involved here: the bias was against a Pakistani. Shame on Quebec! dblair
ryan.skinnell@asu.edu Sep 14, 2009 11:19 am
I can't help but wonder how this issue might split "English Only" proponents. On one hand, I can imagine people being outraged that all the passengers on a city bus would be expelled and punished because one passenger asked for the time in a "non-official language." It's ludicrous. On the other hand, the bus driver's defense of "French Only" is precisely the kind of action "English Only" proponents would seem to have to support. So, the question seems to be, "Do you support common-sense or an official language?" It doesn't seem like both can win out in this case.
sa1157@lycos.com Sep 19, 2009 10:12 am
I work in New York, but we often get wrong-number calls from Quebec. I always thought it was bizarre that when I said "I don't speak French" in my terrible French (I only know a few phrases), the Quebecois would actually ARGUE with me, that yes, I clearly DO speak French! Why, I wondered, would they think I was lying?? Now, I realize, it's because they think it's perfectly normal to lie that you don't speak English. I learned that the solution was to stop trying to pronounce the words correctly and really mangle the accent - SAY NAY PAH ROJERS - to remove any doubts about my linguistic ignorance.

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