Avec votre permission (by Kate Hardin)

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Do you ever get that feeling where you know you’ve done something wrong, but you can’t for the life of you tell what it is or how you’re supposed to know? I’ve felt that way a lot as I move through different places and different communities within them. For instance, I’ve noticed that when I run up against a social norm in Canada, people generally won’t tell me directly like they might back home. Instead, I’ve learned to notice what I call the “Canadian huff”—an almost imperceptible sigh that shows that a boundary has been crossed but is not worth addressing. That’s how I learned not to ride my bike across a crosswalk in Nova Scotia and how I learned not to wear my shoes indoors in Québec.  

Depending on how you feel about it, you could parse the Canadian huff as passivity, politeness, or passive aggression. But whatever you choose to call it, I’ve noticed that that tendency for subtlety is not confined to etiquette, but keys into broader patterns of how information is sometimes conveyed in Canada—or at least in Quebec—compared to other places I’ve spent time.  

A road sign with a branching arrow to indicate that you can go straight or right. (Image source

For instance, when I was fairly new to Montréal, I made the mistake of trying to turn left off rue St-Denis. Locals know that’s not allowed, but I was still learning the city and rarely drove, and as a result I was relying on external cues to learn the rules of the road. No one was hurt in the making of this blog post–only a few seconds passed before I registered the sign prohibiting left-hand turns, a sign that I’d seen hundreds of times but never really noticed until that day.  

Compare that to the equivalent that I was used to.  

A road sign with a crossed-out left turn arrow to indicate no left turns. (Image source

While the second sign shows you what is not allowed, the first sign instead shows you what is. The meaning is the same, but even so, the first sign confused me: When I approach an intersection, I assume that I can go in any direction that the flow of traffic allows, unless I’m told otherwise. When the sign on St-Denis told me I could turn right, it was telling me something I already knew, so I filtered it out without even registering its implied prohibition of left-hand turns.   

It struck me as interesting to express a prohibition in terms of what is allowed rather than what isn’t. It’s gentler, certainly, and equally clear as long as you know that statements of permission may actually imply a prohibition. But I hadn’t known that—at least not in the context of road signs—and so I’d missed the message entirely.  

A few weeks ago, I noticed something similar while waiting for an appointment at a government office. As I stood at the counter, a sign caught my eye: “Nous sommes ravis de vous servir en français” [We’re delighted to serve you in French].  Subtext: Nous sommes ravis de ne pas vous servir qu’en français [We’re delighted not to serve you except in French]. It’s not the only such sign I’ve seen—there’s one at my library as well. It’s like if you sent the more overt “ici on parle français” [French is spoken here] to finishing school and taught it to curtsy.  

A sign carrying the logo of the Québec government states, « Bonjour, nous sommes ravis de vous servir en français. Si vous considérez être visé par une des exceptions prévues par la Charte de la langue française, dites-nous si vous souhaitez être servi en français ou en anglais. » [Hello, we are delighted to serve you in French. If you consider yourself to be covered by one of the exceptions provided by the Charter of the French Language, tell us whether you want to be served in French or in English]. (Image source)  

That sign came up one day in my French class, and I learned that my teacher had never seen it before. Or, if she had, her eyes had slid over it just like mine had slid over the traffic sign that day on St-Denis. And that makes sense: If someone states a privilege that you already take for granted, you may gloss right over the implied prohibition—particularly if it doesn’t apply to you. And since it doesn’t apply to you, you won’t necessarily have the chance to think through the full implications for someone who is directly affected.  

Another day, my French teacher and I were talking about significant moments in Québec history, and I suggested that the recent strengthening of the Charter of the French Language, known locally as Bill 96, was among them. She disagreed, saying that the bill didn’t have much importance for the society and culture of Québec in comparison to, for example, the Bouchard-Taylor Report or the 1967 World Expo. Her dismissal really struck me. We had so much in common that had led me to believe that we would see eye-to-eye on this: We were both multilingual and generally interested in language, both residents of Montréal, both adult immigrants to Québec, and both interested specifically in French language pedagogy. And yet, our perceptions of the ongoing effects of major language policies were completely incompatible.

 As our discussion went on, she pulled in an Anglophone colleague, who agreed with me about the significance of the bill. We ended the conversation by agreeing that our cultural and linguistic adherences had a stronger impact on our perceptions of the bill’s effects than either of us had realized. My French teacher, her friends, and her family live within the permissions of Bill 96, and the image that it paints for them of how language should work in Québec is overwhelmingly positive. But when people like my teacher’s colleague and me look at that same image, it’s not so simple–we have to figure out how to decipher its hidden prohibitions. 

One major provision of the Charter of the French Language is to protect children’s rights to education in French. For many families, this is an important article that ensures that their children have access to a high-quality education in their own language. But for others, it prohibits this same right. For instance, most newcomers to the province are required to attend school in French, even if they don’t speak it and would be better accommodated by the English-medium school down the street. Only a few dwindling groups of people are exempt from the right/obligation to be educated in French, and the English-language school system exists to serve these families.  

But even those few who are exempt from the “right” to French education may not be fully exempt from the prohibition it veils. A recent news story tells how the Ministry of Education invited families in the English-language school system to a presentation on resources for children with additional support needs, then refused to give the presentation in English. The presenter apologized, stating that “the law” (meaning the Charter of the French Language) did not permit him to present in English.  Not being a legal expert, I won’t take a position on the veracity of that claim. However, I will readily echo the dismay of the affected families, who were denied essential information about support they needed and rightfully expected from their schools on what is at best a Kafkaesque technicality.  

Veiled prohibitions are everywhere—in our social interactions, our street signs, and our language policies. When we fail to notice them, the consequences may be as mild as an exasperated huff from a new acquaintance or a barrage of “tabarnaks” unleashed by a fellow driver. But when it comes to the right to access public services and educational support, couching prohibitions in the language of rights and equality can cause real harm. As the experience of the English school parents shows, this seemingly small difference in framing can prevent us even from collaborating toward shared goals. Perhaps learning to recognize when this is happening can help us to identify when our efforts are being derailed and find the common ground we need to get ourselves back on track. 

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