QUEBEC’S ‘TONGUE TROOPERS’ DEFEND FRENCH

Quebec’s ‘Tongue Troopers’ Defend
French

Le Washington Post aidé des mouvements suprémacistes
canadiens veut étendre au Québec les *mérites+ du *melting pot+ américain !
(article en anglais)

By DeNeen L. BrownWashington
Post Foreign ServiceThursday, April 5, 2001; Page A18

MONTREAL — An anonymous informant tipped the
Quebec government. Then a stranger appeared, taking photographs. Soon, a letter
came, fining Bob Rice. The 60-year-old plumber was then convicted at a trial he
did not attend. His tractor and truck were confiscated and put up for auction.

All the while, Rice stood by, not quite sure
what he had done wrong, his lawyer recounts — the letter, informing Rice of the
infraction and an impending trial, was in French, which Rice does not speak. He
tossed it.

Rice’s offense: A sign that read "BOB’S
PLUMBING SERVICE & FARM SUPPLIES."

It was nailed onto a metal shed 240 feet off the
public road in the small town of Venosta, Quebec, Rice said. The Quebec
government deemed that Rice had violated a law requiring small commercial signs
to include French, with the French letters at least twice the size of those of
any other language on them. The law has been in effect since 1993, and the
government enforces it strictly.

Rice depicts himself as an unwitting victim of a
fight he doesn’t understand. "I think it’s kind of ridiculous," he
said. "We are still in Canada."

The language police, "tongue troopers,"
as they are called, are sometimes seen walking down the streets of Montreal,
whipping out tape measures to make sure French on signs is of legal size. Owners
of signs that aren’t in compliance are fined by an organization called the
Commission for the Protection of the French Language.

Guy Dumas, a Quebec associate deputy minister
who is responsible for language policy, said this and other laws regulating
language in Quebec are necessary to save a culture and language that are in a
minority in North America. "The weight of French speakers in Canada is
decreasing year by year," he said in an interview. "In 1950, the
French population in Canada was 30 percent. In 1996, the last census, it was 24
percent."

"We are surrounded by a sea of Anglophones,
the media weight of English, the cultural weight of English," he said.
"It is important to maintain French culture, not in a folkloric way, but in
the capacity of being able to service everyone in everyday activities: going to
the store and being able to work in your language."

The laws and enforcement methods infuriate some
Quebecers, notably those who aren’t of French descent. "They operate on
anonymous sources," says Keith Henderson, leader of the Equality Party in
Quebec, which is fighting the law. "If you are French nationalist, you can
go and launch an anonymous complaint. It’s like a covert operation. . . . The
language regime is Stalinist in this province."

Mike King, a Montreal journalist, sees
historical roots. "It goes back to when the French lost to the
British" in 1759, he said. "The British let the French keep the
culture. So they act like they didn’t lose. To them it is just a technicality
they lost the war."

The language laws have been applied to American
Express stickers on restaurant doors and to packages of matzo balls that were
stopped at the border because they displayed English and Hebrew but no French.

Many shops with English names try to meet the
letter of the law by putting a "Le" in front of the name. Example: Le
Bargain Shop. Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name, though, to Poulet Frit
Kentucky.

The original version of the sign law, better
known as Bill 101, barred all languages other than French on outdoor commercial
signs. The law was amended in 1993, after the U.N. Human Rights Committee
intervened, calling it a human rights violation. The new law requires that
French be "markedly predominant." Bilingualism is tolerated on smaller
signs, but anything as big as a sign on the side of a bus or a billboard must be
entirely French.

Brent Tyler, a civil rights lawyer in Montreal,
explains the law as "the phenomenon of linguistic insecurity" in
Quebec. People go along with it because of an innate Canadian respect for
authority, he suggests: "In Canada, we still have the queen on our money."

It’s not only the authorities who enforce
Frenchness. The battle is also being fought on the streets by minor terrorists.

Last fall, three coffee shops owned by a chain
called Second Cup were firebombed. Earlier, a group calling itself the French
Self-Defense Brigade warned that the cafes in the trendy Plateau Mont Royal
district of Montreal would become targets because they violated "linguistic
purity." A communique sent to newspapers warned that the Second Cup was
"in the line of fire."

The bombings caused minor damage and no
injuries. The Quebec government condemned the bombings. Doug Hurley, commander
of the Property Crime Division of the Montreal Urban Community Police Service,
said the police were treating the bombings as serious. "One of the bombs
didn’t go off, but it was right under a gas main. . . . Anybody who lays a bomb,
I would call him fanatical."

Tyler and Henderson say small companies seem to
suffer the brunt of the language laws, known collectively as the French language
charter. In recent years, he has defended a couple accused of violating language
that says: "Consumers of goods or services have the right to be informed or
served in French."

The two corner-store owners were fined because a
customer complained they did not speak enough French to sell beer and milk. The
owners were ordered to take French courses or hire a bilingual employee. The
owners, Marie Sia and Rene Sia, immigrants from the Philippines, said they could
afford to do neither. So they closed shop.

In a cafe in the heart of Montreal, the city
that is ground zero in this conflict, a man in a green beret sits in a gray
high-back chair. His legs are crossed. He is reading a novel called "Noel
Sur Ganymede."

Outside the snow is falling, dusting Avenue du
Mont-Royal. A campaign poster for Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe clings to
the top of a pole. Across the street is Aldo, Centre de Liquidation. A bus with
a poster of a smiling prime minister rolls by. The sign on the bus is in French.

But two pay phones outside the cafe bear the
name "Bell."

Everywhere French dominates English. But the
English is still present, as if taunting the language police.