On Thursday, the eyeroll news of the day in Canada was the Quebec language police’s decision that a Montreal restaurant could not have the word “pasta” on their menu. It’s a new twist on an old story; Quebec’s noxious Bill 101 has been oppressing businesses and private individuals for decades, famously leading to the removal of the apostrophe from iconic Canadian department store Eaton’s.

On Friday, the news trickled south and Quebec’s shame wound up in such places as CNN and Fox. The national eyeroll had gone international.

It seems like a quirky story, and the government’s response is that the enforcement was overzealous. We could leave it at that, except that as much as the enforcement may be called overzealous, it was 100% correct according to the law. Bill 101 dictates the languages that can be on business signs. It dictates the size of those languages. It dictates what language your child can be educated in. In the recent provincial election, the Parti Quebecois toyed with the idea of amending it so that speaking french would be a prerequisite to running for provincial office. After this suggestion, they gained support in opinion polls.

We can laugh about Pastagate. We can dismiss is at just another silly tale coming from La Belle Provence, but it is indicative of something far deeper and uglier. Their is a strain of xenophobia that runs through Quebec society, and the province’s unwillingness to confront its dark side becomes more repugnant which each silly tale.

I have written more about Bill 101 at The 49th and the Commons.

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80 thoughts on “Pastagate

  1. We should all rue the day that Quebec stopped noodling around and pasta bill dictating language.

    In memoriam of a departed Leaguer, I note the number of the bill, which suggests that day may have occurred in 1984.


  2. I have some sympathy, since we have plenty of similar native language tomfoolery here in Wales. A friend of mine’s son recently got into trouble at his Welsh speaking school for using the dreaded English word “iPod” in the playground, rather than the “official” Welsh pronunciation “pod E dot”. She was unsurprisingly unimpressed.


    • These are the words that are going to really trip up language police. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a similar problem with the word iPod in Quebec. (And I wonder if an Apple Store would actually be able to call itself that.)

      Regarding pasta, it’s been noted that Quebec menus can use “sushi”.

      Oh, and years ago, there was a giant debate about smoked meat – a very Montreal food. I think they decided “le smoked meat” is french.


      • I’m surprised they picked on an Italian restaurant menu in Italian though. I’d always imagined Quebecois language police were like ours and specifically anti-English rather than anti-foreign languages. Whether that’s a reflection of past military conflicts or just a reaction to the dominant language I’m not sure, but for example my home town’s Irish bar can call itself “Harry’s Place” without any trouble (I guess that’s “Irish” English, heh!). The local Italian place has bilingual titling “Yr Eidal Fach / Little Italy” (Welsh first, obviously!) outside but an all-Italian menu. Generally the Welsh Language Society types likes to go after the big chains (Banks, Supermarkets, Costa Coffee & McDonalds) rather than local stores though. I guess they feel they’re easier targets as there’s naturally less sympathy for them than small local traders.


  3. A few towns over from where I grew up, there was/is a large Korean population, much of it recent immigrants, and a large portion of that folks whom are here temporarily for work purposes. There are a number of stores and restaurants catering to this population, which had a lot of their signage in Korean. They were eventually forced to include English as well, with certain size requirements, with fire code cited as the rationale. The town claimed the fire department would be unable to find the stores in an emergency if the signs weren’t in English. It’s not the most absurd logic in the world, but I presume most firefighters can properly recognize flames and smoke and respond accordingly. I should note that the stores were not barred from Korean signage; they simply had to have English signage of a certain size.


    • “but I presume most firefighters can properly recognize flames and smoke and respond accordingly.”

      I wonder, though, if all fires are obvious from the outside, that is, if there’s a fire in a kitchen that’s serious enough to warrant calling the fire department, but might not yet be in huge flames and wafts of smoke. Also, firefighters tend to be first responders to non-fire emergencies, like heart attacks, seizures, and choking incidents.

      Still, I guess they could look at the numerical addresses. I assume the Korean businesses used Arabic numerals.


  4. I, myself, am a huge fan of the whole “multi-culti” thing. Primarily because of restaurants, but there are some other cultures out there that have, like, literature and shit.

    That said, the idea that “we have a particular culture and it’s a particular culture that we like and we don’t want it changed” is an idea with which I have a fair amount of sympathy… and, I’m guessing, you do too. (For example, prior to the US’s adoption of Obamacare, it was always fun to tell Canadians “you need a more American style of health care provision” and to see them say stuff like “you know, we have a culture where we are proud and pleased to take care of our poor and our elderly!”)

    The fundamental issue seems to me to be that this is a stupid hill upon which to die.

    English is inevitable.


    • Jay,

      But I think there is a difference between taking steps to maintain your own culture for you and forcing your culture upon unwilling others, with the latter seeming to be what these laws do. If everyone who found themselves in Quebec went their wholly willingly, I think you could make a stronger case of, “You’ve chosen to come here and we expect you to work within certain guidelines.” But because many people do not make that choice (as discussed in another post over on The 49th), I think you run into some difficulties with that approach.


        • It is one thing to say, “You have chosen to come live in a Francophone world, so we expect you to speak French and only teach your kids French.”

          It is another to say, “You have chosen to remain employed in your current job, which now requires that you live in a Francophone world, so we expect you to speak French and only teach your kids French.”


          • What’s weird is that I suspect that we differ over which one of those two is a rights violation.

            (Edit: wait, misread your second sentence, I assumed that it was going to be some variant of “if you want to remain employed, you’ll speak French at your job” or similar. Personally, I’m not a fan of laws that tell you what language you have to teach your kids. I sympathize, however, with employers that say “Our job has requirements which include showering, showing up on time, and being fluent in perl. Ha! We’re just kidding about showering.”)


            • I don’t mind the latter presuming the requirements are reasonably related to the performance of the job and weren’t used to discriminate.

              As I understand the Quebec laws, largely through Jonathan’s posts on the topic, there is a limited set of people who are able to set their children to non-French-speaking schools. These laws don’t seemed so much aimed at protecting French-Canadian culture as they do at oppressing other cultures.


              • If the job wants to require French, I’m fine with that.

                But if an international company holds offices in Quebec and transfers some employees there and those employees want to have their children attend English-speaking schools, I think they should have every right to do so.


                • Best as I can tell, the language eligibility requirements only apply to public schools.

                  “To educate your child in English, you must apply for a Certificate of Eligibility, even if your desired English school offers a French immersion program. Students attending private schools not subsidized by the Quebec government are exempt from this rule.”


                  I think it’s plenty reasonable for the government providing public schooling to only do so in the language it chooses to support. And I suspect that’s pretty much the rule in the US, too. If a francophone working for an international corporation gets transferred to a US office, the public schools available for their children would be in English.


                  • I didn’t realize that. It certainly changes things.

                    Really, it seems that Canada needs to get its shit together on languages. Having one province be francophone while the others are anglophone is just silly.


                    • New Brunswick is officially bilingual.

                      Which makes it the only sensible province really, since the country as a whole is theoretically bilingual.

                      [I]The More You Know[I/]

                      Personally, I have always supported jailing the ombudsmen and declaring martial law as the best way to solve linguistic issues.


                  • The question of accommodation for non-dominant languages is always a tricky one. It becomes trickier still when we’re talking about an official language.

                    However, this issue isn’t about whether a city or town should open a school to accommodate its English populations. These schools already exist, at least in larger metro areas (certainly Quebec City, Montreal and even Gatineau). The question becomes which of our citizens and residents are legally allowed to send their children to these publicly-funded schools?

                    Currently, the answer is the children of people who went to an English Canadian school themselves and the children of the Military. Everyone else is SOL. The double standard is the main objection in this post.


                    • The point, I think, is that English is the non-dominant language in Quebec. So providing education in English is an accommodation, just as other provinces are obliged to provide education in French to qualifying students. Not all citizens are legally allowed to send their children to French schools in anglophone provinces, either.

                      Now, the qualifications are somewhat different. In general, my impression is that they’re somewhat looser for French language schools in other provinces than English language schools in Quebec, and probably the better for it. But it’s not the case that Quebec is unique not opening minority language schools to all comers.


              • The thing is, Quebec is surrounded on all sides by English-speaking regions, and is part of a country whose primary language is English. It’s not at all clear to me that suppressing English isn’t necessary to the long-term preservation of Quebec’s status as a Francophone province.

                I don’t think it’s up to the government to make that decision, of course, but I’m not sure that there’s all that sharp a distinction between preserving French-Canadian culture and suppressing English culture.


              • One thing I’ll add to this sub-thread is that Quebec, and especially Montreal, has, and has had for a long time, a substantial native-born, English-speaking population. It’s not just an issue of an employee being transferred there. Until ca. 1980. Montreal was, arguably, Canada’s first city, its financial capital.


  5. How much of this is built up resentment?

    I know very little about this but if I recall correctly, the French-speaking population of Quebec and Montreal were sort of an underclass for generations in their native providence. There was an anglo-speaking elite and then everyone else lived in poverty. McGill was the university for the English speakers and then maybe Concordia was for the French?

    In places like Maine and Massachusetts and New Hampshire, there are a lot of people whose families came from French-Canada for better economic opportunity and because they could not advance back home. Jack Keourac’s family was French-Canadian and I believe he grew up speaking Canadian French at home.

    That being said, the whole thing is too extreme.


    • How much of this is built up resentment?

      Might explain the Quebecois. But the French can be just as anal when when it comes to le français. Unless they’re still pissed at the English for the 100 year war?


    • McGill was for English speakers. Concordia (then Loyola and George Williams; they merged in the late 60s) was for English speakers. L’Université de Montréal was for French speakers, and in the 30s-60s (after a big fire), it hobbled along with almost no funding, poor enrollment, and a much weaker academic reputation – one of ever so many reasons it was very much harder to live well as a Québec francophone than as a Québec anglophone until after the political events of the late 60s and early 70s.

      It is an open question whether the lives of Québec francophones have improved more because of Québecois nationalists like Lévesque and Bourassa (at whose party’s feet we may lay the language laws, with all their overzealous inanities included) or because of Québecois-Canadian nationalists like Trudeau (whose party was responsible for making Canada federally bilingual, and for a lot of associated multicultural programs that broke down cultural barriers nationally, not just in Québec). It’s impossible to understand Bill 101 without studying Québecois history in some depth. Heck, it might be worth looking at Acadian history to understand why those Québecois families moved to the places they did – there were already French-speaking communities in Maine, New Hampshire, New Brunswick, etc.

      All that notwithstanding, Bill 101 is almost certainly my least favorite, most embarrassing Canadian law (unless I’m forgetting something even worse). Québec’s history only gives the Parti Québecois so much wiggle room to make an ass of itself (I still can’t believe no one was pilloried over the deeply shameful “Québecois de pure laine” debacle in the 90s.) I think most Québecers – CERTAINLY most Montréalers – find it as asinine as Jonathan does. I think that’s actually why these kinds of things get so much media attention: most of the people living in Montréal are walking around muttering to themselves about its idiocy, which makes it good copy. In the mid-90s, when anglophone-francophone tensions were running very high because of the referendum on independence, this kind of stuff happened far more often, but no one wanted to talk about it, because it was a powder keg to even bring up the topic.


        • There have been some interesting issues about Canadian (and other countries) dealing with free speech and the Internet.

          Basically Canadian citizens and others would get around various bans on hate speech by hosting their sites on US servers. A Canadian or other court would issue a ruling that a site needs to be shut down but the plaintiffs needed to get the US Court system to enforce the ruling of the Canadian court.

          The US Courts said no and always cited the First Amendment being supreme. There was another case involving a French court and sale of Nazi items on Yahoo auctions.

          I wonder how this kind of stuff plays the international press. The US does seem to be more absolute about what free speech means than other countries.


          • Your speech restrictionist PC police types will harrumph a bit but even for people who support the insanity of legally mandated political correctness it’s difficult to get very worked up about the US’s more absolute (but not total) free speech protections.


        • Ugh. Yup, I hate that more.

          And the associated provincial act, natch.

          That being said, I will hate the notwithstanding clause (AKA section 33, AKA the wart on the ass of the Canadian constitution) with the fire of a thousand suns should it ever be used again to undercut our Charter rights.

          Although, now that I think of it, Bill 101 was initially enacted USING section 33. Got reworked in the 90s, I believe.


    • My family is Arcadian. As is much of the French Arcadian population of New Orleans, who got there with their own ‘trail of tears’ walk, a walk of disease, starvation, and being hounded along the way.

      Families on both-sides-of the border is common, and not just amongst the French.

      But I’ve never gotten much of a sense of built-up resentment; if fact, the opposite, a growing sense of pride in the history. But my view is from Maine, hard on the northern New Hampshire/Canadian border.


      • As I mentioned elsethread, I grew up in the Maritimes. My heritage isn’t mainly Acadian, but before I moved to Montreal, I did work at a francophone (Acadian) community center for a couple of years. Views differed. People my age weren’t all that resentful – if they ever were, it was just as much resentment of Quebec for treating them like 2nd-class francophones, or typical Maritimer resentment of Toronto-and-all-points-west. Some of the older folks were extremely grateful it was different for their grandkids than it had been for them, and talked about how hard it had been when they were young. Occasionally when they talked about that, they got angry.

        I guess my point in bringing up the Acadian piece of things was more that those who left Québec for other parts of North America in the 50s weren’t refugees fleeing into an anglophone unknown, but (often) just moving to be with their families somewhere where the chances were better. Not unlike the folks who migrated from Kentucky to Michigan around the same time.


        • In my family, and in many of the Arcadian families I knew in western Maine, people walked away from their French heritage, they became as English as they could. In the larger towns — Lewisiton, ME, Berlin, NH — there were larger communities that still embraced it, and they were looked down upon and joked about. The only ethnic jokes I heard as a child were French jokes, it surprised me to discover people told jokes about other folk when I first went to live in other places.

          It warms my heart today to see Mainers embracing their Arcadian heritage, to see it as a source of cultural pride. But that change — from joke to treasure — does illuminate why the people of Quebec feel so strongly about not just maintaining their cultural heritage not just as a museum piece, but as a living, breathing culture.

          And while the pasta ruling is sticky business, it is local control; a silly example of what’s happening all over the world where we’ve recently helped ‘spread democracy.’


  6. Sacre bleu! Le Loi 101 du Québec est la chose la plus stupide de que j’ai entendu parler. Je comprends les risques pour la santé de la poutine, autant que le gars à côté, mais sérieusement, la culture canadienne-française est pas si faible qu’il a besoin de ce type de soutien, est-ce ? C’est aussi une bonne leçon d’objet pour ceux d’entre nous aux Etats-Unis, qui sont invités à soutenir des lois uniquement en anglais.

    (Oh, thank the Internet Gods for online translators and the good fortune of “silly” and “stupid” being so similar in French. I remember maybe sixty words of high school French on my own, and could never have written this on my own.)


    • I tend to throw in the French word when I can’t remember the Spanish when speaking in Spanish.
      Los pinches mexicanos alway single out that one word in le français to say “Wha-a-a-a-a-at?”*
      And I’m thinking: Hey, it’s fishing Latinate, pal! Be happy with what you get.

      * Of course, I rendered this from the Spanish, as “¿Co-o-o-o-o-mo?” simply doesn’t have the same effect.


  7. Pingback: Pastagate | Algeria Auction

  8. I dunno.
    Reminds me of Kiss having to get a new logo in order to sell records in Germany because of similarity of the lightning bolt S’s with the stormtroopers insignia.
    Of course, anybody with two Jews in the band is definitely NAZI!!!!!
    But then the logo was designed by the Irish guy.
    Which brings to mind the remarkable similarity between Kiss and the Pep Boys:
    Pep Boys: Manny, Moe, and Jack — a Jew, an Italian, and an Irishman.
    Kiss: Peter, Paul, Ace, and Gene — same deal, add one Jew.
    Apparently a very successful formulation for any business enterprise.
    I’m totally fished, being neither Jew, Italian, nor Irish.
    I’m so deprived!


  9. I am surprised that no one is defending the law.

    I would have expected precisely the opposite — Law 101 pointed to as an example of soft, nuanced, culturally sensitive paternalism, with a really good cause in mind, and not all that much restriction on individual liberty.

    All we’re asking here is that the menu be in French, which is a language they know already. That’s not such an onerous restriction, is it? Are you really going to get all jack-booted-thugs over this?

    Fishing libertarians. Always complaining about stupid little things like this….


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