Log Cabin Chronicles

Old Quebec City

Photograph/John Mahoney



Apostrophe Politics

Quebec anglophones feel a little bit subversive when they pronounce the "s" in Eaton's; indeed, even writing it now with the apostrophe seems a little rebellious. The apostrophe-free Eaton is now such an accepted feature of the Quebec fabric that it's matter-of-fact for blokes to say "I got it at Eaton," or "Eaton has a sale on pantyhose."

Eaton, sorry, Eaton's and the troublesome apostrophe have become a symbol here of the on-going language tug-of-war. The latest twist, and surely a development that would have old Timothy E. spinning in his Mount Pleasant tomb, is that his stores in Montreal have become aligned with the language hard-liners in the province. What would he think of English Montrealers, his former cherished clientele, trying to organize a nation-wide boycott of his stores because they refused to post signs in English?

A quick history lesson is required here to help make sense of this seemingly absurd situation. We must go back to post-war Montreal when the English minority was probably at the peak of its dominance and arrogance in Quebec.

It was a time when all but a few business leaders were English, when the Board of Trade was almost exclusively English, when 40 percent of anglos had professional level jobs compared to 17 percent for their francophone fellow citizens.

As for the commercial core of the city, even as far back as the turn of the century, a visitor to downtown Montreal could easily assume he or she was in an entirely English city. By the 50s the situation had only worsened.

Among the highest profile villains - creatures of their times, to be fair - were the St. Catherine Street department store giants Eaton's, Simpson's, Morgan's and Hudson's Bay. They presented a tempting array of apostrophes for the resentful and embittered francophone majority about to unleash a campaign to reclaim its identify.

Eaton's, for some reason, became particularly identified with the worst of English arrogance and indifference towards the French-speaking population who had a right to be served in their own language in their own city.

The "fat, damned English lady" at the counter in Eaton's who was unable to speak French, became the symbol of every store clerk, bank teller, construction foreman, plant manager, or taxi driver who at some point insulted or humiliated a francophone by not speaking their language.

There are explanations, one supposes, for this situation, but few excuses. So, as a corollary to the corrective language laws imposed by the Parti Quebecois government of 1976, was the guilt that invaded the English community.

Much of that guilt has dissipated in the 21 years since Bill 101 was passed. It has withered with each ratcheting of restrictive language laws in the face of an enfeebled English population - long gone as the barons of business and the puppeteers of compliant francophone politicians. So when Alliance Quebec under the leadership of William Johnson launches a campaign to revitalize the English language in Quebec, it is irony at its best that Eaton should be its first target.

Eaton committed two sins. Back in the late 80s when the Bourassa government was planning to amend Bill 101, the store urged the government to maintain the unilingual status quo. But Bourassa did ease the sign law to allow signs inside a store to be posted in English, but only half as large as French.

Alliance Quebec asked Eaton and other merchants to exercise this freedom. Eaton's St. Catherine Street store's manager committed the second sin by saying "no, thanks, St. Catherine is an exclusively French district."

Eaton's management has since said it will reflected on this French-only policy, which, naturally sparked an equal and opposite reaction from defenders of the French language. So, with boycotts threatened from both sides of the linguistic divide, what’s Eaton to do?

Unfortunately for the venerable merchants, there is no equivalent to bankruptcy protection in the rough world of linguistic politics.

CBC logo Peter Black is a writer living in Quebec City, where he is the producer of Quebec A.M. -- CBC Radio's popular English-language morning show (91.7 FM, 6-9, Mon.-Fri).

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