Quebec's government is reinstating language inspectors, known to the English-speaking minority as "language police," or to their harshest critics as "tongue troopers."
"It's a move to put French at the heart of the government's priorities," says Louise Beaudoin, the minister in charge of Quebec's French-language charter.
"We all have to protect the French language," says Ms. Beaudoin. "This at a time when more people in the province speak French than at any time since ... 1867, when Canada first became a country." Fully 82 percent of the province speaks French as a first language; most of the rest can understand it.
The move appears to have further damaged any rapprochement between the province's English-speaking minority and the French-speaking nationalists of the Parti Quebecois government.
It is intended, say critics of the government, to calm the French-language zealots in the separatist party. There is no need for the new inspectors, says Michael Hamelin, who is head of an English-language rights group, Alliance Quebec. "This is a false crisis being created by the premier [Lucien Bouchard] to rouse or keep his hard-liners in tow."
Mr. Hamelin says his group commissioned a recent poll that showed 90 percent of Quebeckers - English and French - like the language law the way it is (loosely enforced) and don't want it changed.
By hiring inspectors to enforce the rules of the Commission for the Protection of the French Language, the government is escalating the language battle, say critics in the English-speaking community.
Few can understand why the economically hard-pressed province will be spending US$3.6 million to hire staff to make sure signs are predominantly in French, both inside and outside stores and restaurants. The inspectors visit businesses after complaints have been received. English is allowed, but only in smaller letters, and it must follow the French (as in vente/sale).
The English apostrophe, seldom used in French, is forbidden as a possessive, as in Eaton's. The big Canadian chain is known in Quebec as Eaton.
"Our objective is clear," says Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard. "Within one year, ... in conformity with the law, French must appear alone or predominantly on 85 percent of signs. The year following that, 90 percent observance must be attained."
The law is a waste of time and money because complaints come from few people, Hamelin says. "It was clear back in 1993 [when language inspectors were abolished] that you had a couple of thousand complaints a year being made by four or five people."
But David Payne, a separatist member of Quebec's legislature, says it is the English community that uses inflammatory rhetoric. "The Gazette [Montreal's English-language daily] this morning refers again to 'language police.' That's unfortunate," he says. "So is the anxiety the fault of the Parti Quebecois or is it the fault of the English community?"
Payne says there were 3,000 complaints about the French language last year from people worried about English pushing French off public signs. He says the outcry about language inspectors is hysteria.
"Have you ever seen a language cop?" Payne asks. "The English community wants to call them language police. There is no patrolling that is done. These are people that work in offices, replying to complaints."