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Language war hits Montreal city hall
Article mis en ligne le jeudi 12 janvier 2012

Language is always a hot button topic in Quebec and now fresh controversies are brewing at Montreal city hall. Traditionally, municipal politics has been a neutral arena on language matters, but apparently no more.

Council majority leader Marvin Rotrand and president of the executive committee of Montreal Michael Applebaum came under fire from French-language radio host Benoit Dutrizac who complained that they didn’t speak French well enough because they had discernible English accents. This sparked a much-publicized Twitter war between Rotrand and Dutrizac.

The firestorm of criticism over the Montreal Canadiens’ hockey franchise’s decision to hire unilingual anglophone Randy Cunneyworth as interim coach ignited another round of linguistic fireworks.

On Dec. 21 the Montreal Gazette reported that Vision Montreal leader Louise Harel had asked Gérald Tremblay to express his opinion at the Dec. 20 city council meeting, noting that the mayor had “remained silent, so far,” while offering her own views about “the quiet anglicization of Montreal.”

Harel said that the majority of hockey fans in Quebec, including anglophones, oppose the move.

Tremblay replied that Radio-Canada had already asked him the same question the day before and that he had clarified his administration’s position. “I answered that Montreal is a French-speaking city, that the Montreal Canadiens are an institution and should truthfully reflect the will of Montrealers, which is that we should have a coach that speaks both languages.”

He said that while the first article of the city’s charter says that Montreal is a French city, council protocols nevertheless call for councillors to reply in either French or English, because public question period hears from anglophones, as well as francophones.

Snowdon city councillor Marvin Rotrand isn’t buying Harel’s argument. He said that the French character of city council has never been in peril. “Ninety-nine per cent of the work of city council takes place in French.” He said that this latest war of nerves over language was really a media-driven attempt to shore up the moribund Parti Québécois.

“Anglophones have an inalienable right to be addressed in English when they ask a question at city council meetings,” Rotrand said, adding that this has been a right since 1791. “I want to reassure all citizens that they can ask a question in English when they come to city hall.” Anglo-Montrealers are disproportionately concentrated in the CDN-NDG borough.

He pointed out that the city of Montreal has a bilingual website, promotes interculturalism, welcomes English-speaking tourists and foreign investors, and has always pursued a linguistic policy based on “pragmatic good sense,” taking pride in serving its citizen clientele in both French and English.

However, there were more flash fires the following day. The Gazette reported that Vision Montreal councillor Elsie Lefebvre rose on a question of privilege at city council on Dec. 20 to contend that her rights as a city councillor were being belittled “because this municipal council becomes more anglicized month after month, week after week.”

Tremblay replied that she was “way off base,” adding that he knew that she couldn’t help herself. “It’s only normal that Elsie Lefebvre (would raise the issue), it’s in her DNA. She comes from the Parti Québécois… but the way she said it isn’t right, because there are major efforts made at city council for people to speak French.”

[ Deborah Rankin ]

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