National Post Editorial, Jan. 4, 2013
Language tensions are to Montreal what black flies are to the Laurentian mountains that lie to the city’s north: They’re easy to ignore individually, but collectively at peak season they can lead to near-intolerable frustration. Sometimes, they make residents feel they are paying too high a price for the pleasure of experiencing Quebec’s charms.
During the last provincial election, language tensions were ratcheted up to one of those near-intolerable peaks as a tried and true means of garnering votes by the Parti Québécois. PQ leader Pauline Marois and her minions spread false, fear-mongering tales of the French language’s demise in Montreal, and in subtle but effective ways, encouraged francophones to feel offended even by the sound of the English language.
On three separate occasions within weeks, an English-speaker allegedly was physically assaulted by a francophone who had simply overheard — not even been spoken to personally — other people speaking to each other in English, and who cited the sound of English as the reason for their animus.
Shortly after the election, a transport employee put up a sign on his subway collection booth that “here things are done in French” and refused to speak English to a woman making inquiries. A paramedic refused to speak English in an emergency situation involving a child in an anglo area. In October, a subway ticket taker allegedly grabbed a woman customer who spoke English to him in a headlock and punched her, allegedly telling the customer to “go back to your country” and “in Quebec, we can only speak French.”
This was one “black fly” too many, and brought blowback that demanded investigation. Montreal’s Société de transport de Montréal (STM) deplored the violence, but insisted Bill 101, Quebec’s language law, forbade it from legally compelling bus and subway workers to speak English.
In December, Montreal’s Gazette filed an access-to-information request with the STM, seeking a legal opinion on how Bill 101’s employee-language requirements apply to the agency. On Dec 21, the STM responded: “No such legal opinion exists.” But the Gazette investigation found otherwise in the language of Article 46 of Bill 101: “An employer is prohibited from making the obtaining of an employment or office dependent upon the knowledge or a specific level of knowledge of a language other than the official language, unless the nature of the duties requires such knowledge” (our emphasis).
For example, the Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT), which runs Montreal commuter trains, requires front-line agents to be able to communicate in English. That is sensible, because the commuter trains serve areas of Montreal that are predominantly anglophone. It makes even more sense for buses and subway stations, because they not only serve anglophone residential areas, they also serve untold numbers of tourists and other unilingual visitors from the United States and the rest of Canada.
Montreal anglos wrongly have come to believe that the use of English by public service workers is a kindness rather than an obligation. Indeed, many of them believe that French is the only official language in Quebec. But English is in fact an official language in Quebec, by virtue of Section 133 of the BNA Act and the federal Official Languages Act. That rankles Quebec nationalists, but there is nothing they can do about it.
When the PQ came to power, they declared French the only official language of the National Assembly and the courts — even though everyone knew this was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court duly struck that down in the 1979 case of Attorney General vs. Blaikie.
Not all francophones in the Quebec government’s employ must be competent in English — just as not every Ontario government worker must know French. Obviously the working language of Quebec is French, just as English is the working language of most other provinces. But in those contexts where clear communication is required for citizens to make use of critical services, then both official languages should be admissible as a matter of course.