The owner of a Montreal Irish pub received a letter from Quebec's French-language office complaining about the use of English signs inside. ((Ian Barrett/Canadian Press))

It appears a few pints of beer won't be sufficient to douse the latest language tensions brewing in Montreal.

This time, Quebec's language watchdog is frothing over a popular watering hole cluttered with classic Irish signage and English-only posters.

The wall hangings at McKibbin's Irish Pub include vintage advertisements for Guinness and Harp as well as other traditional fare like Palethorpes Pork Pies.

The owners of the popular hangout say it all just adds to the charm and ambience of their downtown establishment.

Still, the Office québécois de la langue française says complaints about the English-only signs, an English-only chalkboard menu and English-only service prompted it to send the pub owners a letter demanding answers.

"What we asked them were what measures would be taken to ensure that service would be offered in French, because we received two complaints," Gerald Paquette, a spokesman for the language watchdog, said in an interview Friday.

"If the business says some of those pictures are decorative to give the pub an Irish flavour, it is certain we would exempt them," Paquette said. "But there were other posters also, notably ones about contests and events, that were in English only."

The brouhaha has prompted the pub's co-owners to extend an invite to Quebec Premier Jean Charest to stop by for a hearty meal and a pint and inspect the signs himself.

Dean Laderoute and Rick Fon said they'll remove the posters if Charest believes they violate Quebec's language laws, which require French to be predominant on most commercial signs.

"An Irish pub without these decorations is just an empty box," Fon said in an interview. "It's the decor, the pictures, the clutter — it creates the warmth."

Fon also said they have bilingual menus and that his regulars, including a considerable French clientele, all agree the complaints are ridiculous.

"It makes no sense. It's silly," regular Suzette L'Abbé said.

"The staff, if not French-speaking to begin with, get by in French," L'Abbé added.

The pub could face fines as high as $1,500 for each infraction.

The pub skirmish is the latest battle over the question of whether there is enough French spoken in downtown Montreal.

The ever-bubbling issue of language has resurfaced in recent months, beginning with a report in the newspaper Le Journal de Montreal about the ease of obtaining employment downtown with a limited knowledge of French.

Other controversies have included the language of instruction for tots in daycare and the use of English on the automated call-answering systems of Quebec government departments.

The debate promises to get even more heated next month when the language watchdog releases a study on language trends in the province.

The watchdog's Paquette says McKibbin's has 30 days to come up with answers, and if the issue goes farther, a legal warning would be sent and Quebec's attorney general would decide on penalties and fines.

English-rights activist Gary Shapiro believes the whole language pot started stirring again with the provincially appointed commission on so-called reasonable-accommodation and has been fuelled since by politicians and a small group of malcontents.

"It's basic harassment," Shapiro said. "Are they going to come into our homes and our bedrooms next? Where is it going to end?"

Here are some other cases over the years that have attracted the interest of the language watchdog or people seeking to protect the French language:

  • 1996: A woman warns the owner of a Quebec pet store she might get in touch with language authorities because Peekaboo, the parrot she wanted to buy, didn't speak French.
  • 1999: The Old Navy chain is asked to rename its stores "La Vieille Rivière." It never happens.
  • 2000: The owner of an Indian restaurant is told he's breaking the law by having coasters for "Double Diamond," a British beer.
  • 2001: Some people express disappointment that race-car driver Jacques Villeneuve calls his restaurant "Newtown."
  • 2005: Language authorities say they will investigate complaints that Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay's party used the word "Go" on its posters and pamphlets, as in "Go Montreal."
  • 2007: Imperial Oil says it will keep its Quebec-only "Marché Express" name for its Esso gas stations after protests against a proposal to change the name to "On the Run," as they are known elsewhere in North America.
  • 2007: About 50 people protest outside a Second Cup outlet to demonstrate against the words "Les cafés" being dropped from "Les cafés Second Cup" at some of the chain's outlets.
  • 2007: Language activists decry that callers to many Quebec government offices are told to "press nine" for English before instructions are delivered in French. Some of the departments have since changed the message to put English at the end.