Eva Cooper, owner of a small Chelsea boutique called Delilah in the Parc, has been served a notice from the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) ordering her to translate the posts on her business’s Facebook page into French or risk potential legal action. “I think they are opening up a can of worms,” said Cooper, who employs about 10 people in total at her stores in Chelsea and the Glebe. “If they wanna’ bring on the fight, bring it on.”
The notice obtained by the Low Down dated Feb. 7 was delivered to Cooper on Feb. 17 and gave her until Mar. 10 to respond and negotiate a timeline for corrections to be made. If she continues to object, she will be delivered a demand letter, which will carry consequences, such as a fine.
This comes just over a year after the infamous ‘pastagate’ scandal in Montreal where an Italian restaurant was notified by the OQLF – the governmental organization in charge of enforcing Bill 101 – to translate the word pasta into ‘pâtes’. Since then, the OQLF has promised to “triage” complaints and rule out allegations against businesses that are a waste of the bureau’s time. However, questionable complaints continue to make headlines across the province – there was a report made concerning a spoon with English writing on it, while another complaint was made against two hospital workers who were speaking Créole on their own time in Montreal.
In the Gatineau Hills, this is not the first time a commercial website has been targeted. In 2011, James Hargreaves, co-owner of the now defunct Boucanerie Chelsea Smokehouse, was notified that he had to create a French version of his website or risk a $1,000 fine. The OQLF has a long history of targeting businesses in the Hills, including in 1998, when the Low Down itself was threatened with legal action for taking a picture of an OQLF officer; and in 2005, Bob Rice of Bob’s Plumbing in Venosta was visited by a bailiff who threatened to seize his truck if he did not pay a $599 fine and $187 delivery charge because of an apostrophe that appeared in the word ‘Bob’s’. But this is the first time a report has been made concerning a commercial enterprise’s social media website being targeted by the OQLF, which begs the question: how formal does one need to be on social networks that are generally known for their casual tone?
“Ultimately, to me, Facebook has nothing to do with Quebec,” said Cooper, who uses Facebook as Delilah’s primary website. “It’s out of courtesy so people don’t have to come into town to see the new products … What about Pinterest or Twitter? Would I be able to do my text in English on Twitter?” she asks.
Jean-Pierre Le Blanc, spokesperson for the OQLF, said any communication that promotes a product in Quebec, whether it’s Facebook or not, must be in French. “If you talk to your friends, it’s not a problem, but if it’s the sale or promotion of a product or service, [it must be in French],” he said in French. Le Blanc could not comment specifically on the notice that Cooper received as it is not public, but said it was rare for any of these complaints to amount to a fine. “Ninety-five per cent of notices will be agreed upon by the person or company,” he said.
In the rare cases where they don’t agree, the OQLF passes on the case to the Directeur des poursuites criminelles et pénales – the organization responsible for enforcing the Criminal Code – which will enforce a punishment such as a fine or seizure of property.
For Facebook’s part, if the Directeur des poursuites decides to go the route of asking the social network used by 1.23 billion people worldwide to take the page down, it would have to prove that the site is in violation of Facebook’s Community Standards, which prohibit the use of graphic content, hate speech, spam, or harassment, but don’t include anything pertaining to language laws. In extreme cases, Facebook has the power to block the IP address of the page in a specific area or country if it violates the law there.
“How far can you present yourself freely without being told you have to put it into French?” asked Noel Gates, President of the Regional Association of West Quebecers, an English-advocacy organization. He said the allegations against Delilah in the Parc are “a bit disturbing,” but not surprising in light of the Quebec government’s policy on businesses that operate in English. “Is this another system of gradual extension of French-only? I don’t know, but it could be,” said Gates.
Cooper, who employs French-speaking staff and has signage in compliance with Bill 101, has asked for a copy of the letter in English. “I want to make sure I understand. And let’s be honest, what they say in English could be very different from French,” she said.