All she wanted was a part-time job, but what a South Shore teenager got was a hard lesson about language in Quebec.

Meaghan Moran, 17, got a job working at an IGA on Sir-Wilfrid-Laurier Blvd. in Saint-Lambert. She was told that she didn't have the right to speak English at the store.

A fluently bilingual Anglophone, she told CTV Montreal she picked up on some language tension one day.

“One of the guys I was working with is English and I knew him and he said, ‘No, talk to me in French because we're not allowed speaking English on the floor,” she said, adding that she quickly heard what her friend and ex-employee Alex Caldwell knew: employees don't feel comfortable speaking English anywhere in the store.

“I was warned by a friend in the lunchroom to watch what I say and keep my English down, because the management didn't like it and she got a warning,” said Caldwell.

That didn’t sit well with Moran.

“It's just about the principle. You should be able to speak whatever you like. I understand if they want to impose (some rules) -- I'm not going to talk to clients in English, I would talk to them in French -- but if I want to talk to my friend on my break in English, I should be allowed,” she said. “It's becoming too restrictive.”

Store owner Louise Menard, who also owns other IGAs, refused an on-camera interview, but explained her reasoning in a phone interview. She said she thinks that when employees speak their own languages amongst themselves, whether it's English, Russian or Spanish, even on their own time in the staffroom, it creates tension and misunderstandings in the workplace.

Menard did emphasize that speaking only French in her establishments is not required, rather it's requested.

That isn't what some employees at her Saint-Lambert store are told, however.

When Moran decided to quit, she recorded her conversation with two superiors.

“If we permit languages other than french to be spoken, what will happen in the employees’ room? We'll have a ghetto. We'll have a small group of Spanish, a small group of English,” said one supervisor.

Moran said she was told workers had the right to speak English in the employees' room.

The supervisor replied, “On the employer's property, even in the employees' room, it should be in French.”

 

Similar conflict in 1970s

The conflict resonates with Saint-Lambert Merchants' Association member Jean-Luc Patenaude, who served as director of the Association of Air Traffic Controllers in the 1970s, when they had their own argument over language.

The tables have turned, he said.

“Back in those days, most of the air traffic controllers were Anglophones, unilingual Anglophones and some French air traffic controllers came in and started talking between themselves about the hockey games,” he said.

Worried they would be missing safety information, the Anglos wanted all the controllers to speak only English.

The Francophones eventually won their case and air traffic in Quebec became bilingual.

“And this is the reverse situation,” said Patenaude. “It’s exactly the same thing where people take advantage of their position to force coworkers to speak a language they're not at ease with.”

 

No such law

Constitutional lawyer and human rights expert Julius Grey said he thinks it's a clear violation of freedom of expression and equality.

“I do not see how it serves any purpose for a person who is capable of serving the public in French, and does because that's a duty and that's a given, to speak French other than English or Spanish or Italian to his friend on his break. It's a demand that simply doesn't have a sufficient justification to justify going against basic rights,” said Grey.

The store's administration explained it this way in an audio recording: “Mme. Menard is French Canadian, who signs the paycheques. She's asking that inside these walls people speak the language of work which is Quebec's language. It's the law.”

It's not the law, however.

Office québécois de la langue française spokesperson Martin Bergeron said there is no provision in the French language charter that prevents employees from speaking English to each other during the course of a workday.

Moran, meantime, is looking for another summer job, and is considering filing a complaint with Quebec's human rights commission.