TORONTO — In a Passover week crackdown that has outraged Montreal's 100,000-member Jewish community, the Quebec government has blocked distribution of kosher foods labeled only in English because they violate the province's law making French the official language.
Although kosher food labeled in French is available year-round in Quebec, supermarkets import additional kosher products from the United States and Israel for Passover, when demand is highest. Those typically are labeled only in English because there isn't time to re-label them in French.
For 10 years, the government permitted this practice under what Jewish community leaders call a "tacit understanding" to exempt Passover imports. But a March 20 letter from the provincial Office of the French Language ordered an end to the practice.
David Sultan, director of community relations for the Canadian Jewish Congress in Montreal, said Tuesday that there are enough kosher foods remaining in the markets to meet the needs of the community, but he said that has not reduced the outcry.
"You can still find kosher foods, that's for sure. Maybe not in the variety or the same amount as before, but they're there," he said in a telephone interview. "[But] the Jewish community is very angry. It's very insensitive to do this during Passover."
Some merchants confirmed that they have taken items off shelves, but because retailers were not formally surveyed, it is uncertain how many products were removed or never reached markets.
Sultan's organization contends that kosher foods are exempt from the law under a provision allowing exceptions for products with limited use and for those that can't be easily replaced. Jewish community leaders hope to meet with provincial authorities Friday or next week to try to resolve the issue. Passover, which commemorates the Jews' escape from bondage in Egypt, ends Thursday at sundown.
The controversy is the latest example of continuing tension between the Quebec government, which favors making Quebec a French-speaking nation independent of Canada, and the province's English-speaking minority and ethnic communities, which overwhelmingly back continued union with Canada.
It also undermines attempts by separatist Premier Lucien Bouchard to ease those tensions. Bouchard has made overtures to Montreal's English-speaking and ethnic communities, urging them to work together with separatists for the common cause of economic development in Quebec.
Quebec's language law is intended to preserve the primacy of French in a province of 7.3 million people--82% of whom count French as their mother tongue--that is surrounded by 282 million mainly English-speaking Canadians and Americans.