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  • CSI: Quebec -- Provincial tongue troopers on the trail of illegal English

    This summer is the 30th anniversary of the law that makes French the official language of the Province of Québec.  Passed in 1977 on a groundswell of French-separatist voting, the Charter of the French Language gives all Quebecers the right to speak and be spoken to in French at work, in school, in restaurants and shops, and just about everywhere else.  The province’s francophones point to the increased visibility of French on the streets of Canada as evidence of the law’s success, while critics of Bill 101 counter that only 17.65% of all Canadians can sing the national anthem in both official languages and call for decriminalizing English.

    Although both English and French share official status in Canada as a whole, and over the years the Supreme Court of Canada has restored some English-language rights inside Québec, recently Christine St-Pierre, the Québec government minister responsible for the Charter of the French language, affirmed that the Office of the French Language would continue its “zero tolerance” policy toward English. 

    The Office of the French Language, the body charged with making French “the normal and customary language of work, communication, commerce, management,” and just about everything else Québecois, possesses extraordinary police powers to investigate complaints, interrogate suspects, collect evidence, determine guilt, and assess hefty fines for violations of the law.

    Operating as a kind of CSI: Québec, inspectors from the Office of the French Language fan out across high-crime areas of the province -- typically, the English-speaking suburbs of Montréal and its downtown shopping district -- looking for errant apostrophes, a sure sign of an English infraction, since there are no possessive apostrophes in French.  These forensic linguists measure business signs with laser-guided graphomètres to see if French lettering is at least twice the size of everything else.  After pausing for a croissant and a caffè latte at Le Starbucks on rue Ste Cathérine, they seize gallons of the contraband Italian coffee and take it back to headquarters in illegal venti-sized evidence cups.  And they raid bistros in le Quartier Chinois, lining their pockets with dim sum in grands sacs Ziplocs and threatening servers who can’t speak English, let alone French, with deportation for offering them “spareribs à l’ail” instead of “travers de porc.”

    Enforcement of Bill 101 seems to have been successful, at least on its surface.  French appears to be in a healthy position not just in rural Québec, where it has always dominated, but also in the cities, where young people in particular have become bilingual, not through legal mandates, but because they wanted to.

    But the raids and fines of the language police have taken their toll.  Québec’s anglophones have abandoned the province in large numbers in response to the restrictive language law.  Individual English-speakers are down 4.5% overall, and one of the law’s first corporate casualties was Sun Life, which relocated its headquarters from Montréal to Toronto in 1978 because the risks of using English in Québec had become too great.  

    But while the law’s enforcement ten years ago, on its 20th anniversary, remained vigorous, even Minister St-Pierre, despite her insistence that “the law’s the law,” recently suggested, in English, that “zero tolerance” may now mean “persuasion, not coercion.”  She indicated that she frowns on language police raids, and she will pursue her mandate to uphold Bill 101 by convincing people of the beauty of the French language, by accelerating the creation of French technological terms so that English borrowings would be less attractive, and by improving “the quality of French spoken and written in Quebec.” 

    To do this, Québec will take a lesson from the United States and embark on a new, no-francophone-left behind, policy.  Unpopular language police raids will be replaced by high-stakes language tests.  This will stimulate the economy by requiring Canadian standardized tests, rather than imported American SATs and ACTS, and it will spawn a new Canadian test-preparation industry to coach test takers, whose numbers are expected to be in the millions. 

    More important, it will ensure that all Québecers, French-speaking or not, will improve their French by meeting benchmark standards which will rise annually until the province will be able to say, proudly, that Canadian French rivals that of Corneille, Racine, and Molière, not to mention the forty immortals of the Académie Française.  While raids will be discontinued, the language police will still have plenty to do, since just like American schools falling afoul of no-child-left-behind goals, Canadian employers will still face fines, or worse yet, government takeovers, if their employees fail to meet improvement targets set for them by the language ministry. 

    Of course none of this is likely to happen.  For one thing, though it sounds plausible, St-Pierre hasn’t actually proposed it yet.  But the biggest obstacle to such a plan to test language rather than police it would be the fact that, just as American testing companies have been unable to come up with effective ways to assess the achievement of U.S. schoolchildren, the Canadian testing companies would be no more able to create tests to measure the effective use of French than the French language police, with all their fines and metre sticks, were able to suppress the use of English as a means of communicating in Montreal.  

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