If there's a language war in Quebec right now, the latest battle is happening on TV, during commercial breaks.

After an ad portrayed Quebec English-speakers in a negative light, a group created another ad to answer it, buying spots on French-language TV station TVA and running the ad for two weeks.

Both ads were created by non-governmental groups. The first was by Imperatif Français, a Gatineau-based group dedicated to "promotion of the French language, French-speaking culture and the Francophonie," according to its website. The group does receive some government funding.

It showed four people in an open elevator -- a multicultural crowd, appearing to be speaking in French. A fifth woman enters the elevator and stands stone-faced, facing front.

Another woman in the elevator smiles and politely asks "quel étage?," offering to push a button for the newcomer. But the fifth woman refuses to make eye contact, stares ahead and says "sorry," as she reaches over to push the button herself.

The other people in the elevator look miffed and exchange glances with each other behind the woman's back. The ad ends with a written slogan saying "Parler français -- facile comme bonjour," or "Speaking French -- as easy as hello."

The ad was created this October and aired in English and French media, according to Impératif Français.

It didn't sit well with a lot of English-speakers, said another group that promotes bilingualism and language rights.

It portrayed "English-speaking Quebecers as reluctant, hesitant, and defiant when it comes to learning French," said a statement from the Task Force on Linguistic Policy, a new group founded last June.

Its mandate is "to defend the civil rights and constitutional protections of all Quebecers, including those directly affecting Quebec’s English-speaking community."

The group didn't just oppose the ad but reimagined it. On Jan. 1, it launched its counter-ad, which copies the premise of the first ad but shows a different kind of interaction.

It begins by showing two women in an elevator, one of whom is watching the Impératif Français ad on her phone. Another woman and her young daughter get on the elevator, and as in the first commercial, they're asked "quel étage?" by one of the friendly strangers.

The mother responds quickly, in French but with a heavy English accent, by asking her daughter to answer the question -- in French.

"Un, deux, trois, quatre," the girl proudly counts on her fingers. "Quatrième étage, s'il vous plaît!"

Everyone smiles, and the girl's mother continues, still in French, by saying that actually, her daughter is learning three languages, asking her daughter to explain. The daughter tells the other woman that she's learning English, French and Spanish.

"That's great," the woman replies. "Yes, it's great!" the mother answers.

The ad closes with its own written slogan, in French: "Being bilingual -- as easy as Bonjour-Hi!"

“We intend to counter, and overturn, the negative stereotypes of English-speaking Quebecers flooding Quebec’s French-language media,” said Marc Perez, the Task Force's chair of marketing, in Wednesday's press release.

He led the commercial's production, alongside Debbie Mercier, who wrote the script.

The chair of the task force, Colin Standish, said they wanted to push back on the idea that French is threatened by people speaking other languages.

“These ads are aimed at bridging the informational divide between linguistic groups, by demonstrating that Quebecers can speak a multitude of languages and live in a bilingual society, without diminishing the French language," he said.

The ads are running for two weeks, ending Jan. 16.


When asked if he believed the original ad was a fair or accurate portrayal of Quebec English-speakers, the head of Impératif Français didn't respond directly but said the ad was meant for a national audience, not a Quebec one.

"Since they were aimed at the whole of Canada, our two commercials... were broadcast on the main English-language television networks from coast to coast (Newsworld News Network, CBC and CTV Montreal and Ottawa) as well as in the French-language television media (RDI, Radio-Canada, TVA, Télé-Québec)," wrote Jean-Paul Perreault, the group's president, in an email.

The ads, set in an elevator and a conference room, were meant partly to show the problem as it occurs in the federal public service, he wrote. 

However, English Montrealers were part of the target market too, he wrote.

"The decline and ignorance of French are primarily an English-Canadian problem, especially outside Quebec, but not exclusively!"

Meanwhile, in his opinion the Task Force counter-ads "would have made perfect sense" if they'd been broadcast nationally and encouraged bilingualism, but "not exclusively in French in Quebec," he said.