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What I Learned This Week: Quebec's Language Police Are Great for Business

03/05/2013 12:12 EST | Updated 05/05/2013 05:12 EDT
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fusilli pasta with chicken...

I've been blogging for close to seven years now, and over that time, I don't think I've ever posted about politics; my subject matters have run the gamut of business, the somewhat absurd, and the generalities of life.

But when politics starts to somewhat absurdly affect business and the generalities of life, I just have to weigh in.

This week's lesson then is about a political conspiracy; a GOOD political conspiracy though...albeit a somewhat counter-intuitive one.

In a nutshell:

The recent crackdowns by Quebec's French-language watchdog troupe (officially known as the OQLF, unofficially and snarkily referred to as the "tongue troopers") is actually designed to BENEFIT Quebec's English-speaking minority (a.k.a. "Anglophones" and/or "Anglos") and small business.

Before fully explaining said conspiracy, a little background (particularly for all of you reading outside Quebec and wondering what the hell is going on here). Over the past few weeks, the OQLF has:

• Demanded that Italian restaurant Buonanotte eliminate the Italian word "Pasta" from its menu (a Clouseau-like affair now renowned as "Pastagate")

• Demanded that a popular bistro, Holder, cover up the words "On/Off" on its microwave oven and the words "Redial" and "Hold" on its phone with opaque tape

• Demanded that artisan coffee bars Caffè in Gamba in Montreal and Caffe Conti in Quebec city remove one "F" from their names

• Demanded that Chef David McMillan, of Joe Beef (renowned as one of the country's top restaurants) remove an antique sign from a PEI beach hanging near his bathroom

• Demanded the McKibbin's Irish Pub remove vintage Guinness ads and decorative signage from its walls

Conventional wisdom sees this as repressive, insulting and misguided.

I see it as brilliant, forward-thinking and economically stimulating.

Thanks to the OQLF, Buonanotte has earned about a million dollars of free publicity, everywhere from bloggers to local newspapers to CNN. The restaurant sits as one of the remaining stalwarts on St. Laurent Boulevard; once this city's hottest strip, now a near-barren wasteland of papered-up empty storefronts. Thanks to all this attention, customer traffic -- even if only from curious "looky-loo" passers-by -- cannot help but increase exponentially.

Same goes for Caffè in Gamba. "It's a circus here today," owner Jean-François Leduc told the Montreal Gazette, describing the flood of well-wishers who dropped in Friday to lend encouragement after he tweeted about his run-in with the language office. He couldn't even dream of affording an ad campaign like the one the OQLF has provided.

To top it off, reporters everywhere, from the Globe and Mail to Al Jazeera, have been in contact with McMillan's Joe Beef, a long-time media darling that certainly doesn't need the promotional exposure. YOU try to get a reservation there now!

Don't you see it?

It's genius, and it's Machiavellian and it's effective.

By stepping up these inspections and demands, the OQLF simultaneously appeases the PQ's formidable language hardliners (who demand a crackdown on pesky English, most notably via the much-reviled Bill 14), while boosting the profile of, and traffic to, primarily Anglo-run businesses (who are perhaps just looking for a break).

And given the new world we live in, the global attention generated by the OQLF will spawn a new breed of tourist, "Wordies," who will flock here to eat, drink and take pictures in all the affected places.

I wish the PQ -- a party where I actually have a few friends -- can take full credit for this, but let's face it, the OQLF existed under the former Liberal government as well. It's just that THIS government has stepped up its game. And will continue to do so, as the OQLF budget has been increased 6 per cent this year! (This government also had the wisdom and kindness to name a special Minister for the city of Montreal and the province's Anglophones, a man who had the gumption to stand down his old boss, the demagogue Jacques Parizeau, in our honour.)

As an added bonus, the OQLF actions have spurred on a significant ripple effect.

Rather than people running scared to Toronto like in 1976, the latest offensive has given rise to a refreshed Anglo political spirit, one not seen since the days of the old Equality Party. For example, last week close to 1,000 rowdy Anglos gathered at a downtown hotel to mark the kick-off of CRITIQ, a new civil rights group.

And then there's the revitalization of the small business entrepreneur, like my friend Liz Faure, whose new company, Bad Anglo Productions is about to launch a line of T-shirts and stickers emblazoned with sweetly sardonic slogans like "Don't Worry, Be Anglophone" and "Anglophone Was Here."

With so much brightness on the horizon, one small dark cloud of a problem remains -- even with the 6 per cent budget bump, there are still not enough language inspectors to go around.

So how can a deserving business attract an OQLF inspecting team, and all the ensuing buzz that follows its visit?

Perhaps the easiest way is with this foolproof inspector-magnet process:

  • Print these words on a sign --
  • I LOVE THE OQLF!

    I SUPPORT THE OQLF!

    LONG LIVE BILL 14!

  • Blow the sign up as big as you can.
  • Display it prominently in your place of business.
  • Then call the OQLF, report an offending English sign...and demand its removal.

Better start hiring extra staff!

#PastaGate