The Montreal Gazette
Wednesday, June 18, 1997

Smashing the little problems

by Don Macpherson,

To justify their existence, watchdogs need threats against which to guard, and bureaucrats need problems to solve. And if old threats or problems are eliminated, new ones must be discovered - or created - to replace them.

So it is with the bureaucratic watchdogs at the Office de la Langue Française (OLF) and their political master, Louise Beaudoin, the minister responsible for applying the French Language Charter.

What are the bureaucratic watchdogs of the French language to do? The big problems facing the French language in Quebec have all been either solved, or addressed as well as they can be by coercive legislation.

Check the calendar. The dire predictions that French in Quebec would not survive until the millennium are about to be proven not just wrong, but ludicrous. There now are more Quebecers who speak French than ever before, both in numbers and as a proportion of the population. French is spoken in more places in Quebec, including corporate boardrooms. And in 1997, in North America, there are still hundreds of thousands of Quebecers - including a few of Beaudoin's cabinet colleagues - who have managed to avoid having to learn English.

To survive in the absence of real, big problems, the watchdogs must seek out little ones - or, if necessary, imagine them. And they must find bureaucratic solutions to the little problems before somebody else solves the problems, or the problems solve themselves.

So it is with this week's threat to the French language uncovered by the OLF, which is that, as of three months ago, the World Wide Web site of a computer store in Pointe Claire wasn't in French.

Now, you might think this is the kind of "problem" that is covered adequately by the law of the marketplace. No need for the French Language Charter here.

Selling computers seems to be a highly competitive business these days. There's more than one place a francophone consumer can buy a computer in the Montreal area, and even in Pointe Claire.

If Micro-Bytes Logiciels, which is the name of the store, didn't translate its site into French and thereby passed up the opportunity to advertise on the Web to French-speaking customers, well, that's its business - or lost business. Other than Micro-Bytes Logiciels itself, who would suffer?

As it turns out, the owner of the store, Morty Grauer, said last week he had planned on translating the site, was in the process of doing so and was "75- to 80-per-cent" done.

So it's a good thing the OLF moved so quickly. Otherwise, Grauer might have solved this "problem" all by himself, without any need for the OLF's heavy-handed intervention.

In its haste, however, the OLF appears to have rushed onto some shaky legal ground.

In the first place, there's the seemingly age-old Canadian question: federal or provincial jurisdiction? Is the Web one or the other - or neither?

But even if Quebec had jurisdiction, present Quebec law may not give the OLF the legal authority to order Micro-Bytes to have a French site.

The French Language Charter's "francization" provisions, which require some businesses to inform and serve customers in French, do not apply to companies with fewer than 50 employees, such as Micro-Bytes.

And Section 52 of the Charter, which the OLF invoked in its order to Micro-Bytes, may not apply to Web sites. The section and related regulations, last updated in 1993, say "catalogues, brochures, folders, and similar publications" must be in French. They don't mention Web sites, and all the "publications" they do mention involve some form of printing on paper, a description that doesn't apply to Web sites.

What's most disturbing, however, is that the possibility of the OLF exceeding its legal authority is casually shrugged off by minister Beaudoin. "We'll see legally, but we think the OLF can do that", she said.

"We'll see legally?" Beaudoin doesn't even claim to have phantom legal opinions to back up the OLF, like the unseen ones on which Education Minister Pauline Marois has based her defence of her position on school-board voting rights.

We already knew the Bouchard government considered itself above the Canadian constitution. Now, it seems, it may place itself above Quebec's own laws.

Copyright © 1997 by The Montreal Gazette. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.