French-language watchdog takes aim at bilingual business cards, other use of English in CDN-NDG

Quebec's language law watchdog is cracking down on Montreal's most populous borough, ordering it to take down English signage, to refer to the borough and its services in French only, and, at council meetings, to rephrase answers in French if they have been made in English.

Mayor says borough 'won't back down' from providing English services, accusing OQLF of 'nitpicking'

CDN-NDG borough Mayor Sue Montgomery says the OQLF investigation is costing taxpayers' money when there are far bigger things to worry about. (CBC)

Quebec's language law watchdog is cracking down on Montreal's most populous borough, ordering it to take down English signage, refer to the borough and its services in French only, and, at council meetings, rephrase answers in French if they have been made in English.

But Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (CDN-NDG) borough Mayor Sue Montgomery says the long list of remedial actions that the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) has drawn up goes too far.

"I will not back down from providing services in English and as many other languages as possible," she told CBC. "I think they're nitpicking."

CDN-NDG borough officials have been meeting OQLF representatives to look at areas of potential non-compliance with Quebec's language law, Bill 101, and what corrective measures must be taken.

The borough is asking the OQLF to exhibit some "common sense," Montgomery said, to allow it to best serve its diverse population of 166,000.

English-speaking residents have a right to information — especially confusing technical information — in a language they understand, she said, noting that 30 per cent of borough residents are English speakers, 30 per cent are French, and 40 per cent are of other linguistic origins.

Detailed 20-page questionnaire

The crackdown comes after the borough filled out a highly detailed, 20-page questionnaire about its inner workings.

Montgomery said the questionnaire was sent to every borough, but as far as officials in CDN-NDG know, their borough is the only one found not to be fully compliant with Bill 101.

The questionnaire, which translates to "Analysis of the Linguistic Situation," asks about social media, websites and even whether councillors' business cards are bilingual or in French only.

The questions go much further than how each borough communicates with residents.

The questionnaire asks the borough about the most dominant language spoken among its employees — there are 783 of them in CDN-NDG  — and about their abilities in French. 

The boroughs were asked to conduct a thorough inventory of computers, smartphones and tablets, answering detailed questions about the number of users, the number of computer keyboards the borough owns, what language they are in, the language of computer operating systems and software, and the language of user manuals for printers, photocopiers, telephones and fax machines.

Other questions include:

  • Is road signage in French only?
  • Do all your employees have adequate enough knowledge of French to perform their duties?
  • Does your organization require knowledge of a language other than French to fill certain positions?
The Office québécois de la langue française has reminded the Montreal borough of CDN-NDG that all posters and signs must be in French only. (CBC)

'Problematic areas' identified by OQLF

After reviewing the borough's answers, the OQLF identified "problematic areas," Montgomery said.

Traditionally, during borough council meeting question periods, questions asked in English are answered in English, and French questions are answered in French.

"I am proud to be the mayor of a diverse and inclusive borough," she said. "Everyone is welcome to participate in French or in English at borough council meetings and public assemblies."

However, borough officials will, as requested, provide French-language summaries to answers given in English, Montgomery said.

The borough has been told to ensure all posters are in French and that any documentation provided in English is also available in French. All borough service branches and job titles must be French only.

The mayor and her colleagues have also been told to hand out French-only business cards rather than the bilingual cards offered now, with French on one side and English on the other.

CDN-NDG councillors' business cards have long had English on one side and French on the other. The OQLF says that's not allowed, so the borough is reprinting all of its cards. (CBC)

Borough officials will be meeting with OQLF representatives to discuss the way CDN-NDG communicates internally and with its citizens.

In October, the OQLF officers will be touring arenas, libraries and other borough facilities to ensure each location is complying with the law.

'We have bigger issues'

An OQLF spokesperson, Chantal Bouchard, said it is not unusual for the agency to look into how well a municipal administration is complying with the French language charter.

"Every municipal organization in Quebec must go through the process of francization, aimed at conforming with the Charter and making sure French is generally used in its activities," Bouchard said in a statement. Analyzing its linguistic situation and planning on how to correct areas of non-compliance are part of that process, she said.

"We always work in collaboration with administrative bodies to help them arrive at solutions" to comply with the language charter, Bouchard said.

The borough will comply with the charter, Montgomery said, but she says the whole process is coming at a cost.

"I am happy to work with them, but I don't want to be wasting our services' time and our taxpayers' money on little things like this," she said. "We have bigger issues, like homelessness."

"I just find it ridiculous that we're spending so much effort on something that really is not an issue in my borough," she said.

About the Author

Isaac Olson has been a Montreal-area journalist for more than a decade.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.