A pastry shop owner’s welcome sign in Pointe-Claire, Québec has been attracting lots of attention, especially from the Office québécoise de la langue française (OQLF), the language enforcers responsible for keeping French #1 in the province of Québec. Pâtissier Harry Schick’s storefront window features “Welcome” in 35 different languages including French, but without the special treatment.
That makes the sign a provocative violation of Québec’s language law, Bill 101, which was amended in 1993 to allow for languages other than French on signage, as long as the French is clearly predominant.
Two weeks ago, Schick booted an OQLF inspector out of his shop who wanted to photograph his signage. The illegal storefront sign has been there for three decades, but language police interest has grown as proposed changes to the language law fuel linguistic passions in the province.
For Schick, it’s a matter of principle. He thinks Bill 101, the “Charter of the French Language”, is a prime example of ethnocentric nationalism, which he opposes as the son of Holocaust survivors.
“You just can’t cave in,” said the 63-year-old Schick, who wants others to stand tall against Bill 101. “I would like to see more merchants go bilingual and to not be afraid of the OQLF.”
But merchants hesitate to join the fight since the language law is a hot-button issue in Québec right now thanks to Bill 14, new legislation designed to strengthen the charter of the French language.
Public hearings on the controversial bill just wrapped up two weeks ago with much acrimony.
The Québec Human Rights Commission is opposed to the new legislation which would designate the use of an official language as a “human right.” The Commission President is Gaétan Cousineau.
“The official language is not a human right,” he said. Cousineau believes Bill 14 will replace “democratic values” with “Quebec values” — a small change that would prompt big questions. “Are democratic values and Quebec values similar, or identical?” he asked.
Plenty of Anglophones in Québec side with Cousineau, and Harry Schick’s principled opposition has been a lightning rod for those who oppose the new legislation. The pastry shop owner has become a star attraction at opposition rallies.
Cheryl Cornacchia of the Montreal Gazette did some great interviews with protesters:
“He’s become a local hero,” said Reynold Icart, one of two other merchants at Plaza Pointe-Claire interviewed by The Gazette. Icart is a Haitian businessman who, with his wife, Jan Dominique, owns and operates Centre d’Affaires Core, a business center next to Schick’s bakery.
“People are coming in and shaking his hand,” added Icart, who admits he admires Schick’s resolve but has chosen not to go down a similar road.
After two visits from an OQLF inspector, Icart considered his situation as a small businessman working six days a week and decided to play it safe. He said he personally opted to remove all the English on his commercial signs.
What would you do?