Dan Bilefsky is a Canada correspondent for The New York Times, based in Montreal. He returned to Canada in 2017 after 28 years abroad, reporting from, among other places, Paris, Brussels, New York, Istanbul, London and Prague.
The government calls the new measure necessary for the survival of French, while critics say it stigmatizes bilingualism and is bad for business.
Bilingual signage and street art are a common sight in Montreal, including in the city’s bohemian Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood.Credit...Nasuna Stuart-Ulin for The New York Times
MONTREAL — Since Aude Le Dubé opened an English-only bookshop in Montreal last year, she has had several unwelcome guests each month: Irate Francophones, sometimes draped in Quebec flags, who storm in and berate her for not selling books in French.
“You would think I had opened a sex shop at the Vatican,” mused Ms. Le Dubé, a novelist from Brittany, France, and an ardent F. Scott Fitzgerald fan.
Now, however, Ms. Le Dubé is worried that resistance against businesses like herDe Stiil bookshopwill intensify.A new language bill that the Quebec government has proposed would solidify the status of French as the paramount language in Quebec, a move that could undermine businesses that depend on English.
Aude Le Dubé at her English-language bookstore, De Stiil, in Plateau-Mont-Royal in Quebec. “Language should be a bridge to other cultures,” she said.Credit...Nasuna Stuart-Ulin for The New York Times
Under the legislation, which builds on a four decades-old language law and is expected to pass in the coming months, small and medium-size businesses would face more rigorous regulations to ensure they are operating in French, including raising the bar for companies to justify why they need to hire employees with a command of a language other than French. Government language inspectors would have expanded powers to raid offices and search private computers and iPhones. And the number of Francophone Quebecers who can attend English-language colleges would be severely limited.
Language is inextricably bound to identity in Quebec, a former French colony thatfell to Britain in 1763. Today, French-speaking Quebecers are a minority inNorth America, where their language faces a daily challenge in English-dominated social media and global popular culture.
In Quebec, French is already the official language of the government, commerce and the courts. On commercial advertising and public signs, the French must be predominant.And children of immigrant families must attend French schools.
The new bill is spurring a backlash among the province’s English-speaking minority and others, who complain that it seeks to create a monocultural Quebec in multicultural Canada and tramples over human rights.
The debate over language is particularly heated in Montreal, a swaggering cosmopolitan city with a large English-speaking minority. Such is the alarm about the fragility of French in Quebec that a few years ago the provincial government passed a nonbinding resolution calling for shop attendants to replace “bonjour hi” — a common greeting in bilingual, tourist-friendly Montreal — with just “bonjour.”
Global brands operating in Quebec have adapted to the laws assuring that public signage is in French. Credit...Nasuna Stuart-Ulin for The New York Times
The premier of Quebec, François Legault, has argued that the new law is “urgently required” to stave off the decline of the French language in a Francophone-majority province. “It’s nothing against the English Quebecers,” he said.
Other proponents argue that the legislation is necessary in a world in which the pull of English is so strong.
But critics of the bill say that stigmatizing bilingualism will prove damaging for Quebec. “Language should be a bridge to other cultures, but this bill wants to erect barriers,” said Ms. Le Dubé, whose bookshop is in Montreal’s Plateau-Mont-Royal, a neighborhood with a large Francophone community, street art and hip cafes.
To shield the bill from potential court challenges, the government has invoked a constitutional loophole known as the “notwithstanding clause,” which gives Canadian governments the power to breach some constitutional rights, including freedom of religion or expression.
Quebec’s quest to preserve French has echoes in other countries, including the United States, where more than 20 states, amid the proliferation of Spanish, have enacted laws in recent years to make English the official language.
In France, theAcadémie Française, the rarefied body that protects the French language, has sought to ban certain English words like “hashtag,” though it laterbacked downon that. Quebec’s language agency, for its part, has allowed “grilled cheese” to enter the lexicon but prefers “courriel” to “email.”
Its proponents argue that the bill is imperative because bilingualism is on the ascent in Quebec workplaces. They point toa 2019 studyby the agency charged with protecting the French language, which showed that the proportion of workers exclusively using French at work fell to 56 percent from 60 percent between 2011 and 2016.
Shady Hafez, 29, an Indigenous advocate who grew up in Quebec and now lives in Ottawa, warned that the bill recklessly ignored Indigenous languages and culture in the province. Credit...Nasuna Stuart-Ulin for The New York Times
Alain Bélanger, a demographer at Quebec’s Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, a graduate research organization in Quebec City, said the future of French in the province was at risk, in particular among second- and third-generation immigrants, who invariably turned to English.
“This law is necessary to help redress this imbalance,” he said.
Louise Beaudoin, who in the 1990s served as minister for language for the Parti Québécois, a nationalist party,said in recent hearingson the legislation that the bill did not go far enough, and could not be moderate and reasonable “given the state of French in Quebec.”
Critics of the bill said that bilingualism should be seen as an advantage — not a threat — and accused Quebec’s government of seeking to expunge English and other minority languages.
Shady Hafez, an Indigenous advocate and a sociology doctoral student at the University of Toronto, whose Indigenous community resides in Quebec, criticized the measure as tone-deaf. He said it ignored other marginalized cultures altogether, including Canada’s large Indigenous population.
“For Quebec to say, we need you all to speak our language, is continuing the project of building a one-culture state,” he said. Referring to efforts in Canada historically to stamp out Indigenous languages like his native Algonquin, he added, “We should be prioritizing preserving our own oppressed languages — not French.”
Alex Winnicki, co-owner of Satay Brothers, a popular Asian street-food restaurant, said that the bill’s regulations would hamper small businesses already buffeted by the pandemic. He would ideally like to put a “Satay Brothers” sign outside his restaurant, which is now unmarked.
Alex Winnicki, an owner of the popular Satay Brothers restaurant in Montreal, warned that stringent new language regulations would undermine small businesses like his, already suffering from the pandemic. Credit...Nasuna Stuart-Ulin for The New York Times
“A new sign would cost about $10,000, and I don’t want to have the language police break down my door,” said Mr. Winnicki, the son of immigrants from Singapore and Poland.
Moreover, in multilingual Montreal — where hip-hop artistsmix English and Frenchand where many residents move between French, English and mother tongues like Mandarin and Arabic — he said the notion that the government could effectively police language use in daily life was “ridiculous.”
The bill requires that companies justify their need to hire employees with knowledge of a language other than French. Its proponents are concerned that a bilingual person could be hired in preference to one speaking only French, putting Francophones at a disadvantage.
Michel Leblanc, president of Montreal’s Chamber of Commerce, said he did not want a situation in which a restaurant had one bilingual waiter, to be called over every time an American tourist appeared. But he stressed that language protections were necessary, given that French was spoken by a minority in Canada.
Yet some, including Mr. Leblanc, fear the bill’s economic consequences. During recent legislative committee debate on the bill, he stressed that English was the international language of business and that the bill could undermine Quebec’s economy. In the late 1970s, after the passing of a previous landmark language bill,Montreal experienced an exodusof Anglophones and businesses to Toronto.
Christopher Shannon, principal of Lower Canada College, an elite English-language private school in Montreal, warned that the bill threatened to depress his enrollment and also make Montreal a less attractive place forworld-class talentto settle. Under the bill, he said, foreign nationals residing in Quebec temporarily can’t send their children to a private English school like his for longer than three years.
Handwritten signs in French outside a seasonal market in Plateau-Mont- Royal, a multicultural neighborhood with a large Francophone population.Credit...Nasuna Stuart-Ulin for The New York Times
“This bill threatens to turn Montreal into a backwater,” he said.
Ms. Le Dubé, the English bookshop owner, said that, being from Brittany, where the Breton language had declined rapidly in the 20th century under persecution from France, she understood all too well the importance of preserving a nation’s language.
But, she quickly added, “Why can’t different languages coexist?”
April 22, 2021
Bill Brownstein • Montreal Gazette
Brownstein: De Stiil is an unlikely thriving bookstore in the Plateau
The De Stiil bookshop in the Plateau sells books only in English
Aude Le Dubé, owner of popular Plateau bookstore De Stiil, with with first time author Braedan Houtman. The bookstore sells only English books and is owned by a francophone from France. PHOTO BY DAVE SIDAWAY /Montreal Gazette
The shop windows are displayed with bios on Joan Didion and Philip Roth and such enticing opuses as Gail Crowther’s Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz: The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History.
So one could easily assume this is an anglo bookstore in the West Island or Westmount. Nope. Would you believe the Plateau? And would you further believe the owner is a franco, who has penned two bestselling novels in French? Yup.
Welcome toDe Stiil, which, despite its name, is not some hipster distillery but rather a warm, white-walled bookshop on Duluth St., which would appear to defy conventional linguistic logic.
Prior to the pandemic, the spot served as an outlet for the minimalist women’s fashion designs of Aude Le Dubé. But with non-essential businesses shut down for a spell, Le Dubé decided to pivot to her first love, literature, a year ago. And with six franco bookshops in the area, Le Dubé decided to go all-anglo.
The decision has paid off nicely. Le Dubé’s clientele is a mix of anglo, allo and franco.
Regardless, many were left befuddled by the sudden presence of an anglo bookstore in the Plateau. Sure, one of the more popular bookshops in Paris is the iconic Shakespeare and Company, which in its first incarnation was a gathering spot for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. But the Plateau is not yet cosmopolitan Paris, although De Stiil has attracted an interesting smattering of writers, including B.C. poet Braedan Houtman, who became so smitten with the shop that he helps out Le Dubé in his spare time.
“I don’t really know what I was thinking in doing this,” Le Dubé laughs. “I must have been crazy, but I haven’t regretted my decision for a minute. It’s been great. Clients are always thanking me. I’ve really not had any flak at all.
My philosophy is that language is just a tool, not a weapon.
“I think of myself as a free agent, one of the few people who could get away with this. If I were a franco Quebecer, maybe I would be seen as a traitor. If I were an anglo, I would be seen as an invader. But because I’m from France, people are probably thinking she just doesn’t know any better,” she laughs more heartily.
Le Dubé was born in Brittany and educated at Paris’s Sorbonne. Prior to arriving in Montreal 10 years ago, she had lived and worked in Switzerland and Kentucky of all places.
“It’s been an unconventional life,” she understates, before blurting: “By the way, De Stiil means nothing. It just has a nice ring to it.”
Le Dubé had spent a decade producing her own line of clothing on Chabanel St. before selling it from this venue three years ago.
“It worked very well, too, but then came the pandemic. Then I came to the realization that my great passion in life had always been writing, whether writing books, creating advertising copy or translating,” says Le Dubé, author of La Mer intérieure and Les Passagers de la plage — which, ironically, can’t be sold at her own shop.
“People always appreciate books, and now with restaurants and cafés closed and people stuck at home, the bookshop is one of the few outlets for people to escape and to browse and talk.”
And to read some poetry.
First time author Braedan Houtman in the De Stiil bookstore in Montreal.PHOTO BY DAVE SIDAWAY /Montreal Gazette
Houtman, who moved here from Vancouver Island two years ago, has published his first volume of poetry, an appreciation of sorts to his new home, Verses from Montréal.
“Luckily, I got here a year before the lockdown and got to experience all the great things about the city and was able to put those thoughts together in my book when the city got locked down,” Houtman, 25, says. “Aude is my book’s top seller, so I wanted to show my gratitude by helping her out when I could.”
Houtman recites from his poem on changing seasons with this hopeful passage:
“Spring! Hello! We meet again!
Yes, please, oh, do come in …
And tell me spring, how have you been?
You come here all alone?
For every year, all of us here,
Await to guess or know.”
Still waiting. It’s presently snowing outside on this cold, grim spring day.