A CBC interview with Mordechai Richler, London, 1961.
Unlike my literary peers in the United States and the Rest of Canada – or the R.O.C., as it is now known here in Quebec – I can no longer scribble in English with impunity, which makes for a certain frisson. The Commission de Protection de la Langue Francaise has dispersed 15 inspectors, each of them armed with a tape measure and color chart, to make sure that English lettering on outdoor commercial signs is half the size of the French, and that perfidious Anglophones haven’t painted their half-pint messages in colors more alluring than the French. If Quebec’s language laws tighten just one more notch, I may have to write my novels in words half the size of the French so as not to antagonize our linguistic vigilantes. I have already had to take down the billboard rooted in the field opposite our cottage on Lake Memphremagog:
FREELANCE ENGLISH-LANGUAGE WRITER
Free estimates on request.
Consider the hard lot of your beleaguered good neighbors to the north, Quebec’s English-speaking – and English-writing – minority. Our mother tongue is an affront to the province’s visage linguistique. Following the introduction of the French Language Charter in 1977, our supermarkets and department stores lost their compromising apostrophes. Eaton’s, for instance, was born again as Eaton. In the absence of the Keystone Kops, the language police – or tongue troopers – came into play, searching for sign offenders. Pondering the corruption of the language of Racine and Voltaire, alert Quebecois lexicographers rendered the humble ”hamburger” edible by renaming it the hambourgeois. Road signs that read ARRET/STOP were uprooted, displaced by politically correct signs that read ARRET only. Grieving English-speaking Quebecers, in quest of signs that still read STOP, had to travel to France. Ultimately, our linguistic strife led to the celebrated Matzoh Bust. And there was the case of the indignant pet shop customer who threatened to complain to the Commission de Protection de la Langue Francaise because a pernicious parrot named Peekaboo spoke English only.
Not satisfied with demoting English letters to half size, Quebec’s vigilant Culture Minister, Louise Beaudoin, ordered one hospital to take down its bilingual signs altogether. The hospital is the Centre Universitaire de Sant de l’Estrie (CUSE) in Sherbrooke, the only city in Quebec’s eastern townships. Set in gently rolling lake and apple-growing country, the townships were originally settled by English-speaking immigrants, many of them United Empire Loyalists, fleeing American revolutionaries who had loutishly seized their lands without compensation.
When Sherbrooke’s only Anglophone hospital was shut down, CUSE took in the acute-care patients, most of them elderly, and promptly posted bilingual signs as a courtesy. The gesture was illegal, however, because, as Ms. Beaudoin ruled, a hospital ”cannot and will not be designated bilingual” if fewer than 50 percent of its cases are English-speaking patients. This decision riled the hospital’s tolerant Francophone director, who observed, ”I feel this is really a step backwards after all the work we did to make Anglos feel welcome.” Next, Quebec’s Health Minister magnanimously announced that he would allow pictographs for those who couldn’t understand French. Naturally, the grouchy English-speaking community was indignant; they took the Health Minister for a boor, but I considered his compromise ingenious: I look forward to the necessarily saucy symbols that will indicate where parents should take their newborns for circumcision, in which rooms women can receive breast augmentations, and on which floor hemorrhoid treatments are to be administered.
” Making up only 2 percent of North America, the Francophones take their culture to be at risk; they fill an angst-ridden raft in perpetual danger of being swamped by an English-speaking sea. In fact, their culture is thriving.”
Say this much for Quebecers, currently embroiled in a family quarrel, surely risible to outsiders: we care more deeply about language rights than anybody else on this continent. If Lemuel Gulliver had embarked on one more voyage, it surely would have been to the loopy belle province, where the separatist Parti Qubcois government has succeeded in dividing us into the pure laine and les autres, that is to say the pure and impure woolies. Composed of old-stock Francophones, the pure laine is the overwhelming majority. Hell is the others: the Anglophones and so-called Allophones (Italians, Greeks, Portuguese and so on). I am proud to report that Quebec’s Jews, most of us descended from East European shtetls, pass muster as Anglophones, even as we are incongruously called ”Anglo-Saxon” Jews in Israel.
Both the pure and impure woolies are fulminating and feeling menaced. Making up only 2 percent of North America, the Francophones take their culture to be at risk; they fill an angst-ridden raft in perpetual danger of being swamped by an English-speaking sea. In fact, their culture is thriving. They have already rendered unto Canada our most talented playwright, Michael Tremblay; that internationally renowned maker of theatrical magic, Robert Lepage; the films of Denys Arcand (”The Decline of the American Empire,” ”Jesus of Montreal”); and the Cirque de Soleil.
Despite their unquestioned dominance, some pure laine in Quebec still regard the language of the impure woolies as a desecration of their streets. ”I feel like a foreigner in my own country,” protested one separatist politician, who was horrified by the intrusion of signs in Montreal advertising Blockbuster Video. ”How would you translate Blockbuster Video?” a reporter asked Ms. Beaudoin, the Culture Minister. She couldn’t come up with an answer, but did point out that Office Depot, a good corporate citizen, graciously calls itself Bureau en Gros in Quebec.
Troubled by the proliferation of the conquerors’ lingo, Ms. Beaudoin has since ordained that Quebec’s civil servants will need special authorization before making speeches in English.
The remains of an FLQ bomb, detonated in the 1970′s in Westmount, Montreal.
The French Language Charter’s ultimate goal is to make French the predominant language of all Quebecers. Understandably, then, alarm bells went off last spring when a government report revealed that sneaky impure woolies still read English newspapers and magazines, and even sometimes English books, and watch English-language television shows and videos at home. Worse yet, damning evidence has emerged that the ungrateful children of Allophone immigrants, who are obliged to attend French-language schools, prefer to flirt in English in the schoolyard.
Then, last March, in the weeks before Passover, came Matzohgate. An astute tongue trooper espied boxes of imported matzohs, unilingually labeled, on the shelves of a kosher grocery and ordered them removed at once. A real knee-slapper of a story, it was carried around the world. Quebecers were humiliated. In a bold move, the government exempted imported matzohs from labeling regulations for 40 days before Passover and 20 days after. Those Jewish felons who, like me, might fancy a delicious matzoh brei on the illegal 69th day will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that we are bonding with the Conversos of late 15th-century Spain, who also had to practice their religious rites in secret.
But the Matzoh Allowance is not indicative of a general loosening of the rules. The Conseil Pedagogique Interdisciplinaire du Qubec has now distributed a quiz to Francophone schoolchildren to test their ”quotient of linguistic pride.” Sample questions:
Je n’aime pas l’usage d’anglicismes. Vrai? Faux?
Je loue surtout des vidocassettes en anglais. Vrai? Faux?
To be fair, a majority of pure woolies don’t mind bilingual signs. The Union des Artistes has condemned Ms. Beaudoin’s initiatives, and Alain Dubuc, editorial page director of La Presse, a Montreal newspaper, has come out against linguistic tyranny. ”Calls to arms from radical elements that, sadly, are too close to power,” he writes, ”find little support among the Quebec people, a large majority of whom are in favor of tolerance.”
And, happily, at least one Quebecois vedette, the pop singer Charlebois, is not intimidated by Anglophones – even if they are royal. It has been reliably reported that at a dinner party in the Florida manse of a French Canadian tycoon, Charlebois, who was sitting next to Fergie, the Duchess of York, observed, ”It has to be easy for the Queen to go to the hairdresser.”
”I don’t understand,” Fergie said.
”She just has to point to a stamp, or her picture on a £20 note, and say, I want it done like that.’ ”
Fighting Words was published by The New York Times on June 1st, 1997.
Mordechai Richler photographed in front of Willensky’s deli, Montreal, 1981.
Mordechai Richler gets heckled by a French Canadian Comedian in Montreal, 1990.