O Québec

by Jack Locke

a.k.a. The Language Police

What are the lengths to which the government of Quebec spits vengeance upon the English language?

“English and French are the official languages of Canada and have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and government of Canada,” reads section 16 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

René Lévesque's government introduced the French Charter

Yet, in Quebec, the Charter of the French Language defiantly proclaims that French is the official language. Moreover, it goes far beyond asserting that French is the official language of the provincial legislature, the National Assembly. The government spells out its intentions quite clearly in the Charter’s preamble.

“Whereas the National Assembly of Québec recognizes that Quebecers wish to see the quality and influence of the French language assured, and is resolved therefore to make of French the language of Government and the Law, as well as the normal and everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business.”

Now, this poses a problem for me. I am a poet, an English-language poet, living in Quebec. For me, my everyday language of work, communication, and instruction is English. In essence, I am a living contravention of the Charter of the French Language.

It gets worse. If I seek to promote my work, I could become public enemy numéro un.

If I advertise a poetry reading on a poster in English, and if I put the poster in a store window or on a public bulletin board, I am facing a fine of between $250 to $700. Subsequent convictions would increase the fines from $500 to $1,400 per offense.

“Public signs and posters and commercial advertising must be in French,” states the language law. Obviously, one poetry reading advertised in English threatens the entire French language in the entire province. The offense so heinous, hanging might be a more effective penalty.

Yet, ironically, the Charter of the French Language quite clearly insists that other languages are to be respected.

“Whereas the National Assembly intends to pursue this objective(French-language domination) in a spirit of fairness and open-mindedness, respectful of the institutions of the English-speaking community of Québec, and respectful of the ethnic minorities, whose valuable contribution to the development of Québec it readily acknowledges;

However, soon after the Parti Quebecois took power in 1976, with a stroke of a pen they wiped out one of Canada’s official languages. It is one thing for a government to promote French—in fact all governments in Canada should—however, it is quite another thing to cannon-ball one language over another.

Recently, I wrote Premier Jean Charest asking that he appoint a Commissioner of English to ensure the protection and preservation of the English language in Quebec. I was not requesting that English be made an official language. I just believe there needs a balancing of the application of the Charter of the French Language.

His reply was standard, government issue.

“Rest assured that we have taken your comments into account,” Charest’s letter concluded.

But why am I not convinced of his sincerity?

His salutation was demonstrative of why an English ombudsman is required in Quebec. The letter was addressed to “Mr. Jacques Locke.”

As for Quebec’s continued place in Canada, I say cooperate or separate, but don’t continue to denigrate.


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