Life

All

Bill Tierney: Language should be a matter of common sense

 

I was a bit surprised when I finally realized the official guide to the Salons des métiers d’arts, Quebec’s big pre-Christmas arts and crafts show at Place Bonaventure, was bilingual. The pamphlet was being handed out at the entrance to the thousands streaming in.

Some signage at the event was also bilingual. The “sortie” sign was actually an “exit.”

Yes, there it was: the English language. In fact, Canada’s two official languages were side-by-side, looking pretty good together. And when you realized it was there, the whole event felt quite Canadian. Even more so, in fact, than the equivalent show, the “One of a Kind” exhibition held every pre-Christmas in Toronto.

In fact, our Salon des métiers d’arts is a very French affair. What marks it for me is the excellent food, all sorts of dégustations, cheeses, sausages, sweets.

The shock of the two languages together surprised me because I had just been reading about the town of St-Lazare’s brush with the Office de la langue française and the mayor’s determination to continue serving his sizable English-speaking population in its language. I had similar experiences in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue.

It surprised me because the PQ government has tabled a law that threatens to remove bilingual status from towns whose number of anglophones drops below 50 per cent of the total population. Suddenly, Senneville and Baie-d’Urfé could become unilingual towns. And if we use mother tongue as a criterion, what about people like Jean Charest whose mom was anglophone?

But, really, it was all rather familiar, wasn’t it? The PQ gets elected and immediately tables a language bill to play to its militants and to occupy the emotional cultural ground in case of an early election. Obviously, the good people of Senneville and Baie-d’Urfé get worked up about losing their bilingual status and Jean-François Lisée, the minister for Montreal, immediately and spontaneously announces that dropping below 50 per cent wouldn’t lead to automatic loss of status. This is not very reassuring. I’m sure we all like and admire Lisée, but the law is the law and it doesn’t have clauses about not being applied when a minister is feeling charitable.

It reminded me of exchanges the town of Ste-Anne had with the language bureaucrats over bilingual signs we put up. It reminds me of the many English-speaking voters who used to ask me to speak more English for them. It reminds me that a majority of our citizens speak English at home in Ste-Anne, but it is a French town.

Now it seems to me all this skating around the two languages works well as long as everyone is prepared to be reasonable. We can even call a town with a majority of English speakers a French town as long as we are prepared to make sure all taxpayers get information they can understand. The law can ignore reality, but reality has a way of overriding the law.

Admittedly, Bill 101 is based on a form of hypocrisy: let’s pretend certain towns are French based on changing criteria. But when the government clearly doesn’t want any English in sight, how are anglophones meant to feel?

Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue has a slight majority of households using English as their language of communication, and that would have been enough to procure a change of status until the law was restricted at the turn of the century to “mother tongue” anglophones.

So I asked – in French, of course – the charming people organizing the Salon des métiers d’arts how come their guidebook was bilingual and so many signs used both languages. I quickly assured them I was not criticizing their practice. “What did the Office de la langue française say?”

“We didn’t ask,” was the response. They just used their common sense. So, please, don’t ask and, above all, don’t tell.

Bill Tierney is the former mayor of Ste-Anne-de Bellevue.

billtierney@videotron.ca. 

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>