Quebec’s language cops are going after a non-profit thrift shop in Chelsea, which has helped close to 20 refugee families get on their feet.
Chelsea Nearly New Shop president Dawn Bell-Jack told the Low Down that it was “unsettling” to receive a letter from l’Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) stating someone had complained about “a possible violation of the French Language Charter in your establishment.”
The letter, obtained by the Low Down, was sent May 16, but was delivered to the St. Stephen’s Parish, where Nearly New operates. However, Bell-Jack didn’t get the letter until late June and she said she has no idea what the Nearly New did wrong.
“The letter has not one person named,” said Bell-Jack. “No signature, no time, no phone number. Worst of all, it does not tell us why or what we should be doing, but we are to treat [the language police] cordially.”
The letter states that, in order to verify whether or not the complaint is founded, the language cops must conduct an on-site visit to the Nearly New Shop and that “the inspector may ask for documents or information.”
That inspection has already happened, according to OQLF spokesperson Chantal Bouchard, who told the Low Down July 3 that the complaint has to do with the shop’s exterior signage.
“As is the case following the receipt of a complaint, the Office has carried out an inspection,” Bouchard wrote in an email. She didn’t confirm whether or not there was an official violation, but said if the complaint is valid and “corrections need to be made,” the OQLF will contact Nearly New to “help it implement” these corrective measures.
Bill 96, the amendments made to Quebec’s Charter of the French language, include a number of requirements for non-profit organizations, including ensuring French signage is more prominent than English, making French the common language of business and restricting promotion and advertising to French only.
What’s most troubling for Bell-Jack, she said, is the sheer fact that someone would complain about a lack of French at a non-profit thrift store, which helps low income families and vulnerable populations. Chelsea’s Nearly New shop has been operating for over 30 years and has helped countless families with essentials, who have either relocated or lost their belongings to tragedy.
“We are often asked for clothing for emergency situations alerted by other agencies — churches or individuals in the community. This can range from 10 large bags or one individual who is being released from jail with nothing but what they are wearing,” said Bell-Jack. “We are there to assist those having just lost everything in a fire.”
She went on to say that, whoever complained, “is obviously not all that familiar with our organization.” Chelsea Nearly New granted bursaries to five nursing students at Heritage College enabling them to purchase essentials for courses. The non-profit has donated to Quail House, local food banks, the Hills women’s shelter La Maison Libère-Elles, La Maison des Collines and the Wakefield Hospital, among others. The shop has helped 18 refugee families to integrate into their new homes, and often close the doors to the public to give these families exclusive shopping times.
“The families come in and are encouraged to take whatever they want,” said Bell-Jack. “For one family, they were clothing a wee baby, the first in three generations not to be born in a tent.”
Bell-Jack noted that all employees – including her – are completely volunteer and spend hours going through donated items and connecting with local social organizations. She said she isn’t angry with the complainant, but added that she feels “abused by this government,” especially since staff at the shop are almost entirely bilingual and respect both French and English-speaking shoppers. In the 20-plus years Bell-Jack has been volunteering, she said there has never been a French-English issue.
“When we chatter away to each other, no one cares what language we are speaking to each other or how many words in a sentence are French or English,” she said.
Those who do not comply with the Charter of the French language face fines of between $700 and $90,000.