English-speaking Quebecers are used to the province's language police. After all, the French Language Charter is now 20 years old.
But they've had more than just a little bit of trouble getting used to the conspicuous rise recently in the enforcement actions of the Office de la Langue Française in anglophone municipalities.
Anglos wonder what has motivated this new fervour, while those targeted by the Office in recent months are asking themselves how they and the English-speaking community should respond to it.
What's new about this latest spate of enforcement activity is that a lot of store owners, and now even anglophone municipal governments, are being issued infraction notices for minor violations of the letter of the sign provisions of the language law, even though they are otherwise manifestly in compliance with the spirit of the law.
What's also new, the Office admitted this week, is that the language police have, in fact, singled out anglophone municipalities for increased enforcement.
The Office's Gérald Paquette said the agency's higher profile in anglophone residential areas is partly the result of a directive it received last year from Culture Minister Louise Beaudoin, who is responsible for the language charter. Paquette said she instructed the Office to be "more rigorous" in its application of the charter at the municipal level of the Quebec public administration.
At the same time, the Office is obliged to investigate anonymous complaints, and Paquette said coincidental with Beaudoin's directive there has been a large increase in complaints about signs in anglophone neighbourhoods and towns.
Yet an analysis of a wide cross-section of these complaints suggests that many are petty and even silly in nature, raising questions about the Office's real motives.
For example, Clément Arrage, owner of Café Victoria on Victoria Ave. in lower Westmount, was recently served a notice concerning an illegality on his storefront window.
Although bilingual outdoor commercial signs are legal in Quebec providing that the French lettering predominates, every single word on Café Victoria's storefront is in French, except for "Take Out."
The storefront more than conforms with the spirit of the language charter. But an Office inspector noted that the words Take Out are equal in height to the accompanying "À Emporter." The notice Arrage received threatens to refer the matter to the attorney-general unless he takes corrective action.
"I'm going to send them a letter back saying I'm conforming to the spirit of the law and that the economy is very bad right now in Quebec and I need those two words to help my business," Arrage said.
Last month, representatives of about 30 small businesses on or around Victoria Ave. held a meeting to discuss how they should respond to the Office's notices. Agences de Voyages Westmount, across the street from Café Victoria, was served notice that a small decal on its front door, "U.S. Air Authorized Agent," and four similar English-language decals, are illegal.
"If U.S. Air in Pittsburgh would send me a French one, I'd put it up," said agency president Enzo Ed Pede.
The recent language offensive in lower Westmount is just one small episode of a much broader escalation in the Office's enforcement operations in recent months. Every week this summer seems to have brought news of a new target.
Last month featured disputes over the language of business cards, and of Quebec-based Internet websites.
Last week, six municipalities that have official bilingual status under the law, and which were among the first of 34 municipalities in Quebec to have adopted Canadian unity resolutions since last fall - Hampstead, Côte St. Luc, Montreal West, Dorval, Pointe Claire and Beaconsfield - received Office notices of various sign violations.
The principal accusation concerns street signs that bear the name of the street, but not what the Office says is the required French generic designation - rue, avenue, chemin or other. Most street signs in most anglophone municipalities do not carry such designations - in French or English.
The campaign against anglophone municipalities - it was reported last week that five more are to be targeted in the coming months - caps a 15-month escalation in language policing that began with a dispute over the labeling of kosher products for Passover. The blitz has included such other irritants as the confusion over the language of voice-mail at the Royal Victoria and Montreal General hospitals.
The invasive nature of this latest campaign has provoked territorial sensitivities. This week, about 20 residents of a Pointe Claire neighbourhood stapled large Canadian flags to the roofs of their homes, in view of planes flying on overhead flight paths, as a protest against the Office. One store owner likened the Office offensive in anglophone residential areas to the practice of Protestants in Northern Ireland of marching through Roman Catholic neighbourhoods as a symbol of their dominance. Another said it reminded him of how animals urinate to mark their territory.
"Yes, I know, and that's unfortunate," Paquette said. "But you have to remember that if you put French and English on the same equal footing in Quebec, one will be more equal than the other, given the North American context. In Quebec, French has to be first as well as foremost."
The mayors of the six municipalities targeted by the Office have forged a common front and plan to respond in identical fashion to the notices issued last week. They have decided not to respect the Aug. 24 deadline imposed by the Office. And at least two towns, Montreal West and Hampstead, maintain they have oral agreements with the Office dating back to the late 1980s, allowing them to have street signs with no generic designations.
The strategy of the six municipalities is to stall for time, not publicly provoke the Office, promote awareness that they provide municipal services in French, as well as English, and hope "the whole matter just slides off the table," as one mayor put it.
The strategy is one of calcuated avoidance, founded on a belief that the attorney-general's office wouldn't risk international embarrassment to Quebec by prosecuting petty matters having nothing to do with the spirit of the language law - and that could be seen as having everything to do with a nation-in-waiting trying to intimidate its largest minority.
"That's exactly what the six mayors should do," said Julius Grey, a Montreal lawyer who has been involved in several language-law litigations. "What everyone should do who has been approached by the Office recently - schools, hospitals, businesses and municipalities - is ask themselves whether, in fact, they are in good faith observing their obligation to provide services in French. In other words, is your conscience really clear? Because there is nothing wrong with that obligation.
"And as long as people can do that in good faith, they should not be bullied, or go along with treating English in English municipalities like the sisters of Cinderella treated Cinderella."
Prosecutions for language violations have been rare in Quebec. Paquette said 85 per cent of people who are approached by the Office acquiesce following receipt of an initial or a follow-up notice. Another 5 per cent take corrective measures following receipt of a mise en demeure, or formal legal warning. Of the remaining 10 per cent, 8 per cent are allowed to fizzle out while 2 per cent are referred to the attorney-general for prosecution.
In the 12 months ended last March 31, the Office referred 47 of the 4,300 cases it investigated to the attorney-general. The government decided to prosecute only 29 of the 47. Paquette said this week he had no information immediately at hand on the status of the 29 prosecutions, who the defendants were or what they are charged with.
Elie Fenster, owner of Cuir Foresta Inc. on St. Laurent Blvd., said he will move his business to Toronto if the government prosecutes him in line with a notice he received last week.
The notice cites two signs on the front door of the company's office on the third floor of a 10-storey building in the garment district. One sign reads: "Pas de colporteurs." The other: "No Soliciting." They are not important commercial signs. Fenster had bought the two metal-plate signs at a Bureau en Gros outlet. It just so happened that the English sign came in letters slightly larger than the French sign.
"Basically, the important thing for me is not to respect the law but to respect French customers," said Fenster. "That's why I bought signs in both languages. Half my customers are French. And to be honest, if they beat me on this, if they prosecute me on this and win, I'm moving the company to Toronto. I just feel that strongly about it."
Said Irving Adessky, mayor of Hampstead: "What's motivated this recent bit of nonsense? You keep going around and around in your head wondering what the devil has motivated this thing? You wonder what has got them so exercised, so upset."
Paquette had a quick answer: "L'effet Galganov." He said the increase in the number of anonymous complaints to the Office - 4,300 in the year ended last March 31, compared with 2,000 in the previous 12 months, and on a pace for more than 5,000 in the current fiscal year - is a response to anglo-rights activist Howard Galganov having opened up his Presque Pure Laine store (where all signs were bilingual, and French and English lettering equal in size) on Monkland Ave. The store has since closed and Galganov is packing to leave Quebec.
Paquette's blaming of Galganov for the Office's higher enforcement profile in English-speaking areas raises an obvious question. To what extent is this latest campaign of the language police a form of punishment for the post-referendum rise in anglo activism?
Paquette said last year's 4,300 complaints were filed by 1,600 people, not very many really. And the Office's Hubert Troestlerfice said recently most cases involving multiple complaints in a concentrated area - as in lower Westmount - come from groups like the Société St. Jean Baptiste, rather than individuals acting alone.
Paquette said the furor over the Office's activities is really the fault of anglophones who are running to the media with their gripes, instead of settling them privately with the Office.
"What's different now is the opposition of people to our activities," he said. "Before there was some opposition, but it was private. But now it's public."
Lawyer Grey said strong public opposition is the only appropriate response to an enforcement campaign that singles out petty violations of the letter of the language law and disregards the broader context of the good faith that has been shown in respecting the spirit of the law.
"I think what we need is a response that will be firm about the fact that silly and bureaucratic and petty demands are not acceptable," Grey said. "A response, at the same time, that will be able to show an entirely clear conscience about providing services in French.
"In other words, the answer that should be given to this offensive is one which should be able to find support among francophones, even francophone nationalists. The answer should not be an attack on (the law), but an attack on silly enforcement."