MONTREAL - Quebec's language watchdog has more on its plate than pasta
That might be hard to imagine given the furor this week over the warning given by the Office quebecois de la langue francaise because it deemed the owner of an Italian restaurant had too much Italian on his menu. That included the word "pasta."
Usually, the enforcers of the provincial Charter of the French Language are on the lookout for miscreant public signs, ones that flaunt English over any predominance by French.
Those signs account for the biggest chunk of the 4,000 complaints the agency gets every year, as opposed to menus or other things like use of French in the workplace, says Martin Bergeron, an Office spokesman.
"It's almost half the complaints we receive."
Bergeron said the brouhaha around the pasta "takes away from the legitimate actions that we take." He said people work hard to make sure the language law is respected, and they try to do it respectfully.
The restaurant case blew up into a media firestorm, both online and in the mainstream, and was quelled after the agency backed off, citing a loophole in the language law concerning cultural products. Still, it had the Parti Quebecois government, which had pledged to toughen language laws, in full damage-control mode.
Diane De Courcy, the minister responsible for the Office, said Thursday the agency would be more careful in the future.
The head of the agency will "make adjustments" in this specific case and, generally speaking, it shouldn't happen again in cases that involve foreign product names, she said.
"Not that there's ever a 100-per-cent guarantee — these are human beings doing these inspections."
Jean-Francois Lisee, who was tasked by Premier Pauline Marois to build bridges with an already wary anglophone community, breathed a sigh of relief.
"I'm glad that the Office came to its senses," he said in Quebec City, adding it "made a mistake yesterday, corrected its mistake. It would have been better without the mistake."
It's an abrupt reversal of roles for the Parti Quebecois government — which has spent years, since its days in opposition, urging the Office to apply the law more strictly.
The organization has even received a 6 per cent budget increase this year, to $24.7 million.
The agency signalled its retreat from the spaghetti spat when it sent out a statement late Wednesday that there had been "overzealousness" in its approach to the trendy Buonanotte restaurant.
While Bergeron acknowledged a mistake was made, he denied the agency caved to public pressure. If anything, the public pressure only urged the OQLF to examine the file more quickly
"At the end of the day, if there had been an infraction to the Charter of the French Language, then we would have stuck with our first letter (of warning)," he said.
The Office is easily the most controversial of Quebec's government agencies, having drawn the wrath of Anglo Quebecers and snickers in international media reports.
Its ancestry dates back to the 1960s, and its current version was born in 2002 with the merger of two other language watchdogs.
It has as its sole mandate the enforcement of the province's French Language Charter, a statute whose most famous component is Bill 101, passed in 1977.
It makes sure French is used in the workplace and on packaging as well as plotting linguistic trends on a five-year basis.
That, and keeping track of public signs.
Signage has been an issue in Quebec since the language law was passed in the 1970s. Stories of trench-coated linguistic inspectors armed with rulers to verify if the language of Shakespeare was squeezing French off public signs became part of the folklore.
And there were plenty of controversies, both with the agencies that preceded the Office and with itself.
One of the most notorious was in 1999 when the owner of a Quebec pet store was warned she'd have the language cops set on her because one of the parrots in her shop had been taught too much English.
In 2008, there was a public outcry after an Office inspector ordered McKibbin's Irish pub in Montreal to change vintage posters which featured English words, as well as its bilingual menu and bar service. The pub fought back.
Nothing ever came of the threats against the pet shop, or the pub.
When it relented in the case of McKibbin's, the agency said the posters qualified for an exemption as a cultural artifact.
Dean Laderoute, McKibbin's co-owner, snorted slightly when he recalled the incident and the attribution of historical significance to the posters.
"I mean, these signs were made maybe a year (earlier)," he said Thursday.
"They were looking for any excuse to get out of it because of the fact there were literally websites popping up all over the place."
He said his own site calling for a mandate change for the agency got 160,000 followers, and around 2,000 people called the agency in one day in support of the pub.
The pasta incident has created the latest uproar in social media — drawing complaints in both English and French. A number of Italian Quebecers, meanwhile, joked about how they would never relinquish their right to eat pasta.
Other businesses have since gone public with their own disputes with the OQLF. One was a British-style fish and chips restaurant that said it was being forced to lose the "fish and chips," and another was a different Italian restaurant that was told to change its sign to translate "ristorante."
The pasta incident has even annoyed linguistic nationalists.
Staunch defenders of the French language regret that a bureaucratic brain-cramp could be used to discredit an agency that does important work — that of keeping a culture alive.
The common argument goes that if Montreal is allowed to slide into official bilingualism eventually people will, for the sake of convenience, simply stop using French altogether. They describe bilingualism as a "bridge" to the disappearance of French in North America.
Former politician Mario Dumont summed up much of the local chatter during his TV talk show Thursday.
"I don't think the future of French will be determined by Italian menus, or Japanese sushi," he said, criticizing the OQLF for its mistake.
He regretted all the ridicule the incident had drawn, in the media reaction outside Quebec for instance.
"(This example) has given ammunition to opponents of the French Language Charter," said Dumont, the leader of the former Action democratique du Quebec party.
As for Laderoute, he's cautious about saying the Office folds to public pressure, citing other businesses that had not been successful in their challenges.
While Laderoute saw the validity for some protection of language and culture in the province, he expressed disillusionment over the language debate and efforts to curtail English.
"Our children are being taught French in school," he said.
"At the same time, we have to realize that our children do have to deal with the rest of the planet. . . .We live in a global economy. You need English."
Laderoute said the Office is "obviously reading out of a book that was written in the 1970s" but he didn't blame the people he negotiated with at the agency.
"They were really nice individuals just doing a job."
Bergeron said the Office has to be vigilant because Quebec is an island of French in an ocean of English. He said the Office is always working with other provinces and countries to make sure businesses coming into the province conform to the law.
But he acknowledges "there are a lot of things that are done in English." There has to be an equilibrium between what, for example, a company needs, and what the law requires.
"You always have to have that balance so it's always a challenge."