A pint-sized tempest

The language police have got anglos' Irish up, but there is no need to overreact

OQLF - Pub irlandais McKibbin's

Everybody take a Valium, or better yet, have a Guinness. L'affaire McKibbin's is a tempest in a pint glass. Irish culture is not under assault by the language police - unless the owners of McKibbin's Irish Pub in western downtown Montreal want to have it that way.
As even aboriginals in the Australian desert might have heard by now, the owners of McKibbin's were recently ordered by the Office québécois de la langue française to correct "irregularities" in the form of signs in English only at the pub.
Otherwise, the owners would be liable to a fine of up to $1,500 for each infraction of the French Language Charter, which the OQLF enforces. The language law, familiarly known as Bill 101, generally requires that French be at least "markedly predominant" on public signs, posters and commercial advertising.

McKibbin's owners say the signs are cultural artifacts that give the place a distinctive character. Without the signs, they say, they might as well close.
Some of the signs are antique advertisements for typically Irish products, some of which are not available at the pub. The connection to Irish culture is less obvious on others, which announce the day's menu, promote an event at the pub or contain humorous messages such as "If you're drinking to forget, please pay in advance." In a letter dated Feb. 6, the OQLF gave the owners until March 7 to tell it what they intend to do. Instead, they alerted the English news media - which is much cheaper than hiring a lawyer - and launched a website targeting Liberal Premier Jean Charest as well as the OQLF, and vowed defiance.
It has been great publicity for McKibbin's, whose apprehended martyrdom at the hands of the language police might sell many an additional pint to sympathizers before charges are actually laid.
But if this is really all about preserving Irish culture, then the pub's owners can make this problem go away quickly and quietly, though that might not be good for business.
All they have to do, a spokesman for the OQLF told me yesterday, is explain to the language board that the signs are cultural rather than commercial, as many establishments across Quebec with similar signs have done, and they'll be allowed to keep theirs.
Such signs are allowed under Division III, section 25.2 of Bill 101's regulation on the language of commerce and business, he said, even if they're in English only.
And so we would again complete a familiar ritual: Language police threaten business, owner goes to English media, Quebec begins to look bad, supporters of language law criticize language police for enforcing it, and language police back off.
Apparently, this all started when a server at McKibbin's wouldn't speak to a patron in French, and the patron looked around for other infractions of Bill 101 to put in his complaint to the OQLF, which sent an inspector to the pub.
(And if you think your job is tough, how would you like to have to walk into an Irish pub in western downtown Montreal, identify yourself as an OQLF inspector and announce that you're there to follow up a complaint about English signs?) In its letter to the owners, the OQLF also reminded them that the language law gives customers the right to be served in French. (It did not say, as reported, that too much English is spoken by the bar's staff.) Maybe the McKibbin's patron is one of the militants who go looking for infractions of the language law with which they swamp the OQLF; the language board does not identify individual complainants.
But maybe the McKibbin's incident is indicative of heightened cultural insecurity and linguistic sensitivity among some ordinary francophones. Maybe, before reasonable accommodations and tales about the return of the unilingual English sales clerk, the patron would have let it pass when he was answered in English when he spoke in French in the heart of Quebec's metropolis. But not now, not any more.
dmacpher@ thegazette.canwest.com
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