I thought we’d done with telling people to “Speak White.” But apparently I was wrong. Two employees of Hôpital Rivière-des-Prairies were recently told to do just that after another, unilingual Francophone employee complained that his colleagues had the audacity to speak Haitian Creole in his presence. Don’t they know their place? This is Quebec, where the official language, especially in the workplace, is French. Eske ou konprann? Never mind that we live in Canada, which has as its official communication two languages. But as they say in Haitian Creole, Yon sèl lang se janm ase (one language is never enough).
I just returned from Jamaica where I tried to learn bits and pieces of the Jamaican Patois. Actually, I`d learned a few words and phrases leading up to my trip so that I could toss them out at unsuspecting Jamaicans, impressing them with my knowledge of their language, a language as poetic and colourful as it is comical, suffused with the humour that is so much a part of the Jamaican culture. You might say that I have Patois on the brain right now, so this story of rampant Creole jumped out at me.
There is a linguistic theory that holds that a Creole or a Patois may become watered down, as it were, homogenized, through close proximity to its parent language, or put another way, to the perceived cultural supremacy of another language. The term to describe the phenomenon is called Decreolization, and it seems to have reared its ugly head at Hôpital Rivière-des-Prairies. The OQLF swooped in when they received the one complained required to launch an investigation, issue warnings, and threaten fines of up to $20,000 if the problem is not taken care of. True to the cowardly nature of any organization who receives a visit from the Language Police, the hospital complied, convening a meeting of all the staff in the department where the two employees work, gently reminding them that they have to work in French.
Johanne Gagnon, the hospital’s communications director reassured the public, though, that Hôpital Rivière-des-Prairies is indeed a Francophone institution, and that patients do indeed receive care in their mother tongue. She also went out of her way to point out that what happened is an isolated incident, and that there does not appear to be “an epidemic of Creole.” To wit, thanks to the inoculatory nature of Quebec’s language law, the Creole infection is not spreading.
It’s not really my place to turn this into a race issue. After all, a similar complaint might have been made had it been two white employees speaking English, or Yiddish, or Italian, or any other language that is not French. To do so would actually not be a contravention of the Language Law, and ought not raise the ire of either the Language Police or of the unilingual complainant whose lack of linguistic ability might lead him or her to feel left out, paranoid that he or she is being talked about, or, as was the case some years ago, that he or she was not allowed to die in French.
Speak White is a poem of appropriation in which Michele Lalonde seeks to align herself, and by extension the Quebecois community, with the African-American community, and with other communities that had been oppressed by their European (not to say English-speaking) overlords, including the Jewish community under Nazism:
dans la langue douce de Shakespeare
avec l’accent de Longfellow
parlez un français pur et atrocement blanc
comme au Viêt-Nam au Congo
parlez un allemand impeccable
une étoile jaune entre les dents
parlez russe parlez rappel à l’ordre parlez répression
Pierre Vallieres would do the same thing in his book a couple of years later. It is an appalling comparison. But, oh, how the tables have turned since then. Maitres chez nous, indeed. Qui est-ce qui parles des mos matraques now?
Just once I’d like to see someone who knows the law better than those charged with enforcing it send the Language Police packing. It would have been refreshing had the hospital’s officials said “these employees are speaking Creole and as such are not breaking any laws. Please leave the premises. Ale vou zan! And don’t come back until you have a legitimate issue. Now go back where you came from and have a Jwaye Nowèl e Bònn Ane.”