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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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