The OQLF has a problem with "pasta" (Pastagate)

(2014 update below)

When I saw a tweet from Buonanotte owner Massimo Lecas, I didn't quite believe it, so I gave him a call.

The restaurateur was indeed visited by the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF), who pointed out a few alleged violations to Bill 101, including - and I wish I were joking - the word "pasta" on their menu.

Quebec has to be the only jurisdiction in the world where government inspectors prevent Italian restaurants from using the word "pasta" to describe their...pasta. I'm just beyond words at this point.

Massimo seems to be laughing it off. He's consulting his lawyer. I hope he says to the OQLF: "Va fangool!"

UPDATE (Feb. 20, 2013): OQLF spokesperson Martin Bergeron won't comment on the details of this case in specific, but told me that in general, no action would be taken for one or two offending words. But menus need to be at least half in French, even at Italian restaurants.

UPDATE (Feb. 22, 2013): What began as a musing on my blog on Tuesday has become an international embarrassment for Quebec. Coverage in Italy, the UK, The Huffington Post USA, DC's Cato InstituteFox News and CNN!

The OQLF backed down in the face of Anglo AND Franco media outrage. They say the inspector was "over-zealous." A small win for Quebecers who believe in tolerance and sanity.

photo: Massimo Lecas / Instagram

UPDATE (Feb. 4, 2014): It's been nearly one year since this blog, which later became known as "Pastagate," exposed Quebec's nonsensical language laws to the world. It became an unfortunate PR nightmare for Quebec (don't shoot the messenger).

Following the scandal, the head of the OQLF resigned (I feel badly about that - she was just a pawn in a repressive, silly system) and the agency put in place a "triage" program to weed out bogus or low-priority complaints. This, in theory, is good news. Some are beginning to understand how some elements in Quebec's Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) are counter-productive, since languages can only be preserved with education, not repression. The restrictions in freedom of expression made things like the controversial Charter of Quebec Values more permissible.

The new triage system didn't work so well for me. On Jan. 20, 2014, my startup, Provocateur Communications, received a threatening letter from the OQLF asking us to publish a French version of our website. We informed them that work to translate the site had already begun (we believe strongly in the benefits of multilingualism), so it was a moot point. The letter, however, was overly aggressive for a first contact; they cited case law and threatened to take us to court - bonjour to you too. 

It's our belief that we did not break the law because a) Bill 101 predates the internet, so our website shouldn't be considered simple "promotional material" and b) as Anglo content providers, we should be immune from language restrictions. A startup with, so far, only 1.5 employees also shouldn't be a priority for the OQLF. We also don't sell a mass market product; we sell mostly Anglo communications, so selling ourselves as French-language specialists before we've invested in a full-time Francophone team member would be nothing short of misrepresentation.

This begs the question: Did this blog and Pastagate make it more, less or equally likely for us to be targeted by the OQLF after one single complaint (the author of which will always remain a mystery thanks to Quebec's love for cowardly, anonymous denunciations)? In the weeks following Pastagate, my partner at Provocateur, Jared Shapransky, created a series of memes (online graphics) spoofing the language repression that the OQLF enforces. It was meant to counter post-Pastagate memes that were more hateful than helpful, including ones that took liberties with our Premier - I find that vulgar. "Ici, on commerce avec amour" generated over 1,000,000 views on Facebook, featured international celebrities like Jay Baruchel and Rachelle Lefevre, and was covered widely in the local press. Did this also put us on their radar? It's a question worth asking. 

I go into more detail about my thoughts on what became known as Pastagate in a column for The National Post. It's important to thank The Gazette's fine dining critic Lesley Chesterman for making the name stick; and a wag of my finger to the lame bloggers who claimed to break Pastagate on a number of occasions, despite clear evidence to the contrary

It's unclear if Quebec is mentally prepared to reopen Bill 101 and look at its consequences for businesses and the economy. The scandal did, however, provoke a good conversation about language insecurity and freedom of expression. Mission: Accomplished, I suppose. But there's still a lot of work to be done to convince Quebec's Francophone elite that English is not evil, but necessary to a vital economy and an educated population prepared to adapt to that economy. It's time to end the politics of identity and division in Quebec. 

The fact that Quebec's sovereignist international relations minister, Jean-François Lisée, called our campaign "refreshing" is a nice sign that, at the very least, we've been heard.  

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  1. Lena73 posted on 02/19/2013 05:45 PM
    That is soooo unsexy. When I go to an Italian restaurant, I want there to be an Italian atmosphere. Greek, greek atmosphere, French, french atmosphere. By changing the language you change the atmosphere which can result in a loss of business. If everything in Quebec was strictly in French it would make for a very unauthentic atmosphere. What would happen to the beautiful multiculturism that Quebec offers and truly makes it distinct from the rest of Canada? I'm a firm believer of keeping your culture alive (I'm Greek) but language is the wrong place to start. Language is incredibly changeable and doesn't last the same forever. Why don't you start trendsetting with other things in your culture that makes you unique and helps you stand out as a Quebecer. Allow others to follow your trend instead of enforcing it....then you'll have everyone's respect and support.
    1. Mo posted on 02/20/2013 01:31 PM
      @Lena73 Whoa, whoa! Did you say multiculturalism in Quebec led by Pauline Marois?! That's crazy talk
    2. Le Québécois posted on 02/23/2013 04:08 AM
      @Lena73 Yes and the oqlf (Martin Bergeron) perfectly understood that (the atmosphere) and agreed with the restaurant owner.

      They highlighted words that they were not sure to initiate a discussion with the owner. 98% of the time there is mutual agreement.

      But people here want to make a big "plate" of out it to make Québec look bad because they hate that the official language of Québec is french and not english but do not mind that 8 other provinces are officially unilingual.

      Now, like is frequently said on this board, let's focus on the economy or other more important things.
  2. Linda posted on 02/19/2013 08:26 PM
    I cannot beleive that they are this petty,,,do they not have anything else to do.
    1. Didi Miesen posted on 02/24/2013 04:53 PM
      @Linda Nope. They've erased everything else that's English - so now it's menu time :) Our tax dollars hard at work in what has become "la YECH Province'.
  3. Angela posted on 02/19/2013 08:32 PM
    This is the lowest the OQLF has ever gone

    Pasta is pasta in whatever language you want; it still remains pasta. I would love to have a job like these inspectors have; going around and measuring signs and writing up businesses for stupid things; but the Quebecois wouldn't think my French was good sick already it has become an obsession with the Quebecois; what they don't realize is that when all the English leave Quebec they will be up the shit creek without a paddle....
  4. John F. posted on 02/19/2013 08:49 PM
    Never mind "pasta". the "OQLF" and OUR "belle province" has a more serious problem...period.
  5. T. Family posted on 02/19/2013 08:52 PM
    Hahahaha! This is ridiculous! They should just put the whole menu in Italian. They can all go to hell.
  6. Manuelreis posted on 02/19/2013 08:52 PM
    Just like years ago, when this famous group of dummies visited a Tavern (Pub, in English) because they had paintings on the walls (Yes, Paintings) in English or Irish. WTF were they doing in a Tavern (brasserie, in french)? Drinking milk, 7Up, Coke? After all, the OQLP "pardoned" the Tavern owners, JUST LIKE IN A COURT OF JUSTICE!!! My question is: WTF did they drink and DID this GANG payed the bill???
  7. Brian Kitts posted on 02/19/2013 08:57 PM
    My advice? You and ALL of your friends/family/etc need to start calling the OQLF with "questions" regarding their rules. LOTS of phone calls. Tie up ALL of their phone lines. Keep them busy. ALL Canadians need to start doing this.
    1. marika posted on 02/20/2013 11:25 AM
      @Brian Kitts I like they idea but the would justify hiring more people on our tax money... so great idea short term but longer term not as much :(
  8. T.Family posted on 02/19/2013 08:58 PM
    What about all the restaurants that have items on their menus like Souvlaki, Shawarma, etc. Any food that has an ethnic name.... and we keep paying taxes for this garbage.
  9. louise posted on 02/19/2013 09:16 PM
    you have got to be kidding me! my famliy came here in the 1700! we have been french and english familys since then, what are they so afraid of? stop forceing it!
  10. Gary Fuller posted on 02/19/2013 09:32 PM
    I notice they had no problem with the words " alla chitarra" 2 lines below PASTA. I suppose any language other than english is ok...... maybe they should force the restaurant to say "pates à la guitare" instead?
    1. Martine posted on 02/20/2013 11:32 AM
      @Gary Fuller These names refer to a specific process in forming the pasta as in spaghetti, penne or any other types of pasta. There is a lot of give and take depending on who and where the actual pasta is made, and that is what creates confusion at the OQLF. They don't know themselves. I think the owner will win this one.
  11. realnice posted on 02/19/2013 09:34 PM
    Do you know what those last two word mean? Really classy.
  12. park x kid posted on 02/19/2013 09:52 PM
    what,s next on their menu shawarma,bagel, shish-kebab,gyro,..get a life,.. time to get rid of these backward thinking departments of ill will and degradation.
  13. Dario posted on 02/19/2013 10:09 PM
    To show how moronic these PQ separatists are is when you ask them who were the first people in Quebec on Quebec land in Canada they avoid the question cause they know they were not the first people here except the Indians but yet also when you ask them about historical wars about "THE CONQUEST" they know damn well, as proven, they lost the war against England and the english and yet still today fail to acknowledge defeat as they were defeated. So today they still think they can do whatever they want and impose their french bullshit I say STAND UP AND FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHTS AND TAKE IT TO THE STREETS.
    1. Big in Japan posted on 02/20/2013 09:00 PM
      @Dario It's precisely to protect their culture from ignorant warmonger like you that they have the 101 bills...

      Following your idiotic logic we should speak mohawk...

      The example shown here is stupid and laughable but you sir are an idiot.
    2. Francesco posted on 02/23/2013 02:02 PM
      @Dario what do separatists have to do with this.... with either party in power it would be the same. all parties voted this law even the one you didn.t vote for...and you dare you write STAND UP AND FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHTS AND TAKE IT TO THE STREETS, you be probably be the first one to stay home and not bother. stop wasting our time with your nonsense.
  14. JF Blanchette posted on 02/19/2013 10:20 PM
    Parfois j'ai tellement honte d'être Québécois.... Sometimes I'm so ashamed of being a Quebecer
  15. Marc Wigle posted on 02/19/2013 10:21 PM
    Did the inspector mention what word he should be using instead of pasta?? This damn province is going down the toilet even faster than I thought was possible...
  16. neil posted on 02/19/2013 10:25 PM
    Only in Quebec do they waste our hard earned tax dollars to harass business owners over words on a menu..... ridiculous plain and simple. ..
  17. Johanne Gauthier posted on 02/19/2013 10:34 PM
    This is so ridiculous I could cry...haven't we had enough of these Gestapo like tactics! Does the OQLF realize what a joke they are, do they know how ridiculous and laughable they are perceived in the rest of the world??? Seriously over "pasta", EVERYONE uses the word "pasta". This office which I refer to the language police, gets huge laughs when I talk to anyone in North America, in the rest of the world, the ask what is that, when I tell them they think I'm joking. We are the laughing stock of the how does GODESS MAROIS expect to attract outside business or encourage small businesses knowing that they are going to have to deal with this nonsense, what will be next checking online business, I would like to see her try because all of them will tell her where to go in English and I sure would like to be one! For this business I would just ignore them......let there be a protest heard throughout this province, that all business totally ignore the OQLF with a big laugh, let your voices be heard along with everyone else's that are tired and fed up of being told what language to speak with clients, co-workers, friends, homes, on the street, in our businesses...we have the right to choose....OQLF goes against the charter of Canadian rights and Freedoms...we have been letting them trample on our rights to long and its time we stand up for them including the business community, let us all stand with business community as the stand up and say NO MORE, WE AREN'T GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE, If we don't stand up, what will be next that they will deprive us of???
  18. Robert posted on 02/19/2013 10:53 PM
    incredible , another reason for the move of restaurants to Lancaster Ontario justr outside Quebec Jurisdiction. 30 minutes from west Island.
  19. Despina posted on 02/19/2013 11:06 PM
    What's the acceptable French word for "pasta?"
    1. m.p posted on 02/20/2013 01:50 PM
      @Despina La Pasta.
    2. Lparce posted on 02/20/2013 02:08 PM
      @Despina Well. "Pâte" or should I write " PÂWTE" like people around here say...
  20. Bruce Doucet posted on 02/19/2013 11:20 PM
    Bill 101 should be ripped up and the OQLF should be shut down. Damn language
  21. Zurgrush posted on 02/19/2013 11:52 PM
    What is actually hilarious, yet sad about the OQLF is that they don't even speak French. I once had a conversation which would have ended very badly because the officer was from St Klinklin-des-jenesaispasquoi, and it took me a while to understand what he was saying. It wasn't French, no, it was more of a bad song with bad punctuation. "tu veux tu" is not French. And "bienvenue" after a simple "merci" is not even spoken French. If you are to be an ambassador who whines about a language, at least speak it right.
    1. Mary posted on 02/20/2013 05:22 PM
      @Zurgrush It's so funny you say that.
      If you read over the majority of the comments on here from outraged readers, they are full of grammar and spelling mistakes too. But in English. All these proud anglophones can barely write. We are no better .
      This story about the "pasta" in menus is ridiculous, but honestly, looking back at Quebec's history, I understand why the francophones of this province are so protective of their language rights. If the situation were reversed, we might feel the same way.
  22. Krystal posted on 02/20/2013 12:07 AM
    Delmar, it is actually "violations to [Law] 101. A bill, once passed, becomes a law, and in fact, it is now law.

    *On s'couche moins niaiseux à soir*
    1. j posted on 02/20/2013 02:14 PM
      @Krystal You mean an unconstitutional law that was only passed thanks to the notwithstanding clause that basically allows the government to do whatever they want for a temporary period of r years even though it's unethical and oppressive to it's own people? guess i didn't get the memo. And I guess your law didn't jump through the hoops the proper hoops that you outlined either.
  23. Cliff Oswald posted on 02/20/2013 01:04 AM
    Mister lecas would do well to refuse to cooperate with them and risk the fine. He couldn't buy the publicity this will generate, across the country and the world.
  24. Rhonda posted on 02/20/2013 01:06 AM
    My heart is breaking...No kidding...Such bs...
  25. J.S. posted on 02/20/2013 08:05 AM
    Just when you thought the stupidity had reach it's peak. The OQLF in their never ending crusade to defend the homeland ride again. They are going to have to work
    les weekend to get rid of les hotdog ,hamburger and tacos before the french language disappears all together. Check les tires sur les voitures avant.
    Bonne chance mes " cowboy' !!
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