Published in the Montreal Gazette on August 7, 2013

Early this month, a ‘boil your water advisory’ was issued in our otherwise steadfast neighbourhood located just on the periphery of the city centre. The alert didn’t last too long but was protracted sufficiently that individuals once again became conscious of just how much we take for granted the availability of potable tap water in our day-to-day existence.

I learned of the advisory through our local community’s website, the brainchild of one particularly dedicated, hard working young man who has put together an electronic page of which all can be proud. From that Internet site, a bilingual e – mail was sent out by him to all members on the extensive  mailing list informing us of the unfortunate and inherently dangerous water situation.

The city itself eventually got around to informing people of their own recommendation not to consume the water unless it had been boiled for at least a minute. A rather slapdash-looking 8 X 11 sheet of paper was delivered to all doors in the vicinity. On it appeared the somewhat striking message that took up perhaps only 30% of one side of the paper in question. Of course, as is now so often the case, the opposite side was blank.

I think you may know where this is leading.

Yes, the City of Montreal issued a critical ‘boil your water advisory’ in one language only, and, at that, in a very multi-ethnic locality with many new faces from far off lands arriving on an almost daily basis. There was not even the universally-recognized international symbol indicating the importance of not drinking the faucet water in the days to come.  And, as I am suggesting, this was done – or not done in the case of a missing pictogram – with plenty of space to spare on that particular sheet of paper.

Montrealers have recurrently been told by various established authorities that, not too worry, in a true emergency, communications would be bilingual. For instance, the Société de transport de Montréal often states that, if a truly urgent situation arose, it would make announcements over the metro’s public address system in both English and French. I have yet to hear one such bilingual notice so I will just presume there has never been any such state of affairs.

If, in fact, it is city policy to communicate critical, potentially life – threatening information in French only, I can categorically state that I personally do not know one francophone who supports this course of action. On the other hand, I do not count xenophobic and compassionless individuals to be among my intimate friends.

Make no mistake about it. This is not about the unilingual explanatory tablets found at the base of our historic statues in Dominion Square, not far from the neighbourhood in question. There, it will be recalled, tourists and other hapless individuals are casually and insultingly informed that an English translation for the informative text “can be found on the Internet.” Neither is this about ‘Pastagate’ nor about an English word surreptitiously appearing on a fast-food plastic spoon. No, a ‘boil the water advisory’ is very serious business – quite possibly a matter of life and death.

The City of Montreal owes residents of the affected area an apology for perhaps having followed the letter of a law just a little too closely. Failing that, perhaps Jean-Francois Lysée, the Regional Minister for Montreal, could once and for all step up to the plate and offer us his spin on this most recent and embarrassing manifestation of linguistic intolerance in this otherwise easygoing city.

For the record, the identical argument should be made, if necessary, in other large multi-ethnic Canadian municipalities. A ‘water advisory’, or any other likely grave health development, should be delivered in as many languages as possible in order to assure maximum comprehension. It only makes sense, if for no other reason than limiting the problem to one dimension and not allowing it to expand into the field of emergency health care as well.

“Where have all the tourists gone?”, Don MacPherson rightly asked in a recent column (Gazette, August 3, 2013, B-7). If the City of Montreal continues to treat its own inhabitants, along with prized visitors, in such a cavalier and irresponsible fashion, it could very well end up losing any linguistic battle it currently may think it is winning.

As for that water advisory, it was lifted last Saturday when another neighbour found out by telephoning 311. It seems the city had forgotten about us over the weekend.

(below, unilingual water advisory, minus even a pictogram, distributed in our city centre neighbourhood)