COMIC DARES TO LAUGH AT QUEBEC'S LUDICROUS LANGUAGE LAWS
How ludicrous are those laws? The Quebec Government was offended when an ice cream store used plastic spoons that had a few English words printed on them.
Comic Sugar Sammy is good at making people laugh with his observations in French as well as English about life in Quebec. He's also good at provoking hard-line nationalists to anger.
Last week, signs appeared in several Montreal métro stations advertising tickets for Sammy's current standup shows. They prominently displayed a startling message, in English only: "For Christmas, I'd like a complaint from the Office de la langue française."
It was a dare to the Office québécois de la langue française, the provincial government agency that enforces the Quebec language law familiarly known as Bill 101, which generally requires that French be predominant on commercial signs.
Within a few days, strips of black tape were added to the signs to conceal the English words and change the message to French: "Pour Noël, j'ai eu une plainte de l'Office de la langue française" — For Christmas, I got a complaint from the Office de la langue française.
Actually, the complaint was to the OQLF, from a lawyer named François Côté, who then announced it, without waiting for the agency to determine whether it was founded.
This gave Sammy the free publicity in the media he had been seeking, especially after hard-line nationalists reacted to the signs with outrage.
Côté himself wrote that Sammy had ridiculed not only the language law, but also the Québécois identity it protects. (Not that Côté is an anglophobe; English, he wrote, will always be welcome in Quebec "in the private sphere," though in public, "it is a different matter.")
This is hysterical nonsense. Sammy didn't attack either the Québécois or their identity. He poked fun at a law, which has often been made to look ridiculous by its enforcement.
Only last year, the "Pastagate" affair embarrassed Quebec around the world, when the OQLF correctly interpreted the law to mean that an Italian restaurant had to add French translations to the Italian names of dishes on its menu.
So Bock-Côté was right about one thing, in his blog post titled "Sugar Sammy, the militant comic": Sammy's signs weren't only a publicity stunt for commercial purposes. They were also a political act.
They could even be considered an act of civil disobedience — if the OQLF decides they broke the law, which is far from certain, especially post-Pastagate.
The OQLF wriggled out of that embarrassment by twisting the meaning of a regulation containing exceptions to Bill 101 concerning the language of commerce and business.
The same regulation allows public signs advertising "a cultural or educational activity such as a show" to be "exclusively in a language other than French provided that … the activity is held in that other language."
The OQLF won't comment on a specific complaint, other than to confirm Côté's announcement of his. The agency's spokesperson told me, however, that the OQLF interprets the regulation to mean that the "activity" doesn't have to be held in the "other language" exclusively. And one of the shows for which Sammy's signs advertise tickets is in English as well as French.
That could give the OQLF enough latitude to avoid a "Sammygate." After Pastagate, I can't see it sending an inspector to Sammy's bilingual show with a stopwatch to time the bits in each language. If that's what Sammy really wanted, he may have to settle for the free publicity he's already had.