To our American friends...
We were recently surprised to see the case of the Québec Office de la langue franšaise, under provisions of the French Language Charter, asking a Montréal computer retailer to provide a French translation of its English-only Web page make its way through the American press. Surprised, at first, because whatever happens in Québec is most often than not largely ignored by our American friends. But surprise gave way to disappointment when we saw the journalistic treatment of the story
To set the record straight, let us review some erroneous facts contained in two articles.
Wired news in its June 17 dispatch by Ashley Craddock talks of "the separationist [sic] furor that has raged over Quebec for decades". Separationist furor? Let us just say that the "sovereignist" movement has been alive and well in Québec for decades, nearly succeeding in winning a referendum (49.5% of the vote) on the issue in 1995. The term "separatist" is used in some circles, but the use of the term "separationist" was new to us. Talking of "furor" seems to disregard the democratic process involved here.
Further, Craddock states that "Although the charter has been relatively successful in terms of maintaining linguistic purity, its economic effects have been harsh: An estimated 300,000 residents and 1,000 business have left the province since the law was passed." Although these numbers by themselves are highly questionable, they also attribute to the sole adoption of the Charter that some people and businesses do leave the province. Not a word on the global economic conditions, on unemployment, on government and business downsizing and other factors that can contribute to interprovincial migrations. It makes no reference to the fact that Québec attracts new businesses, that the aerospace and high tech industries are flourishing.
We will discard totally Craddock's assertion that "In Montreal, large businesses are bilingual. On the streets, English words are no longer displayed. In homes and schools, the phrase, 'le weekend,' common parlance in France, is almost never heard." Anyone who has visited Québec or Montréal in the past thirty years will also dismiss these comments.
Nando.net on the same story on June 19 picked up an Associated Press dispatch titled "Quebec's language police patrolling the Internet" in which we could read "Though Quebec is home to only about 5 percent of the world's francophones, it claims to have created about 30 percent of French-language Web sites." For the record, we would like to point out that this "claim" was not made in Québec nor by persons from Québec, but that the fact was stated by Bruno Oudet, president of the French chapter of the Internet Society (ISOC- France) in an article published in the March 1997 issue of Scientific American.
Other examples of misperception of the real situation in Québec unfortunately abound. May we perhaps suggest to newspersons who wish to do stories on Québec that they do their homework and at least get their facts straight. On issues dealing with the economy, a good starting point can be the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Science and Technology's web site. On political issues, including the sovereignist movement, one might read the November/December 1995 (circa Referendum) issue of Canada Watch journal in which several prominent sovereignist figures from Québec offered their views.
It can also be keenly pointed that for a duly-elected government, trying to preserve the cultural and linguistic heritage of the population it serves is quite legitimate. To date, 23 American states have adopted legislations in order to assert and protect English as their official language, as pointed out by English-language activist movements in the U.S. such U.S. English and English First.
As for the "real" issue at hand in this case, i.e. jurisdiction of a provincial government over material posted on the Internet, let us reassure our American friends and network activists. Key actors, analysts, advisors, commentators and jurists within the Québec Internet community will react to point out the practical inapplicability of the French language Charter to Web contents.
Jean-Pierre Cloutier is the editor of the award winning weekly E-zine Les Chroniques de Cybérie.
URL : http://www.cyberie.qc.ca/jpc/uspress.html
Online: June 19 1997