Last week Québec’s language police ordered a popular Montréal watering hole to get rid of its English signs, and the outraged pub owner took his case to the media. Now the dispute has been settled, and both sides can sit down to a friendly glass of Guinness (or a pichet de rouge, if they prefer).
The pub’s owner has agreed to translate everything on his menus, and he’ll greet customers in French if they look like francophones. In turn, the pub can keep its English-language cultural paraphernalia. The authorities maintain that they had never asked for a name change to McKibbin’s Pub Irlandais, and they insist that cultural signs are allowed in any language, so long as the proprietors get approval from the linguistic authorities before displaying them.
L’Office québecois de la langue française had given McKibbin’s Irish Pub thirty days to replace its English signs with ones in French, or face fines of up to $1,500 a day for each infraction. Québec’s tongue troopers claimed they were responding to an anonymous complaint about too much English at the bar. The OQLF gets about 3,500 such complaints each year. In 2007 it fined 53 businesses for disrespecting French (one store, Best Buy, was fined ten times for a total of $5,000), while in 2006, when English apparently ran rampant in the city, over 100 fines were assessed.
As a first step in the investigation process, the language police sent McKibbin’s, an Irish pub in an English-speaking neighborhood, a cease and desist order. The OQLF’s letter claimed that the pub had violated Québec’s 20-year-old Law 101, which requires that customers be served in French if they prefer it, and for French always to be the most prominent language on any display.
McKibbin’s’ violations included English menus, English-language ads for Guinness Stout and Palethorpe’s Pork Pies (the former is available at the pub, the latter is not), supposedly humorous warnings like, “If you're drinking to forget, please pay in advance," and actual Dublin license plates which the owners brought from Ireland to give the place the taste of the auld sod, even though real Dublin bars don’t go in for that kind of kitsch.
Located on Bishop Street in Montréal, McKibbin’s Irish Pub uses English signs to set the mood and, well, simply because it’s a friendly Irish pub where everybody knows your name
The barkeeps and waitstaff at McKibbin’s all claim to speak French and English, and French menus are available on request. The restaurant even has French and English versions of its web site. Customers can bet on French sports at the bar and then watch games direct from Paris on the pub’s big-screen TV. As the web site says, “Dorénavant McKibbin's Irish Pub vous offre Office Pools, l'occasion de parier sur les matchs! Venez voir comment participer. Puis, détendez-vous et regardez le grand match avec des amis.”
McKibbin’s features authentic Irish music every Sunday, though aside from some Irish tschotschkes, it’s a neighborhood bar in an English-speaking neighborhood, with weekly karaoke nights, and performances by bands with Irish-sounding names like the Jello Shots and Future Ex-Wives. But it also has a French website, and managers insist that anyone can be served in French if they prefer. It turns out, by the way, that Guinness, in French, is “le Guinness,” which is very convenient for any unsuspecting monolinguals who might wander into the bar.
If McKibbin’s was a truly Irish pub, the owners would have leapt at the chance to throw out anything English and replace their signs and menus with Gaelic. Instead, they embraced English as a sign of their Irishness. Despite laws like Quebec's Law 101 that promote Irish in Ireland, choosing English is something that happens in Dublin as well, to the distress of the few Irish patriots left who don’t think of the Gaeltacht, the little corner of rural Ireland where Irish is still spoken, as just a nice place to vacation.
Montréal is a comfortably bilingual city in a province where the countryside is still pretty much French-only. While younger Montrealers ignore the language wars and wonder why l’OQLF continues to embarrass itself in the eyes of the world (except for France), the francophone Québecois credit loi 101 with bringing French back into the Canadian consciousness, and with reviving interest in the language among children who might otherwise have switched to English if they moved to the big city.
But while the McKibbin’s kerfuffle was what the English-language Montreal Gazette called “a brew ha-ha,” language protection laws often do more harm than good, because language simply can’t be enforced top-down very effectively, even when the goal is to restore fairness and level the playing field in the English-French language cup competition held each year in Canada. And while fines may bring about a grudging compliance, they don’t encourage language change in any meaningful way, something that supporters of official-English should keep in mind as well.