Two weeks ago, Joe and his family made the painful decision to close their Korean restaurant, Bab Sang. They even considered leaving Quebec City.
People were stopping by the restaurant, pointing and whispering. Some took photos.
There were threatening phone calls.
“Some called us and they said ‘just leave Quebec,'” recalled Joe. CBC has agreed not to use his last name due to safety concerns.
The harassment began after a local newspaper, Le Soleil, published an article pointing out the restaurant’s servers didn’t speak French and the names of dishes on the menu were only in English. (The menu did include French descriptions of the dishes.)
The focus on Bab Sang comes at a time when the province is keenly attuned to threats to the French language. During the election campaign, leaders of all parties promised to do more to ensure its continued viability.
Quebec City’s mayor, Bruno Marchand, weighed in, saying businesses need to function in French in Quebec City.
“I do not want to talk about this particular situation but I do want to say we will not make concessions on the backs of the labour shortage … [Quebec] is in French, this is non-negotiable,” said Marchand, as reported by Radio-Canada.
Soon after that, Joe says the phone calls started and he started to worry for his employees’ and family’s safety. He eventually disconnected the phone line and closed his restaurant for a week as he decided what to do next.
“Frankly, I’m still afraid to get the phone,” said Joe. “My heart breaks when my employees get the phone and [people are] mean and threatening. It was a really hard time for me.”
Originally from South Korea, Joe moved to Quebec City from New Brunswick four months ago with his family. He says the hostility he has faced is disappointing, particularly since he aims to cater to everyone in the Sillery neighbourhood.
For months, Joe says he struggled to find francophone employees.
“I’m really sorry for my customers who want to get French service. I want to serve them in French,” said Joe. “I cannot speak French and I don’t have French staff now, but I cannot solve it by myself.”
Things changed for Joe and his restaurant when news got out about the harassment they were facing.
That’s when members of the Quebec City community, including many bilingual anglophones, stepped up to help, translating the menu and volunteering their services to keep the restaurant open.
Thanks to the support, Joe says he is reopening the restaurant Wednesday evening and resuming regular business hours.
‘I pray that someone would do that for me’
Much of the support for Bab Sang came from online posts, like one by Dave DiNicolo, who moved to Quebec City from Toronto about seven years ago.
He posted about the restaurant’s situation shortly after hearing about the threats they had received. He says he hoped to encourage the restaurant to reopen.
“I had heard about it on the radio driving to work on CBC, and I just thought to myself, like this is happening right in my neighbourhood, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for someone to come here,” said DiNicolo.
His Facebook post on an anglophone group page in Quebec City received hundreds of responses — many pledging to drop by Bab Sang for a meal to support the owners.
DiNicolo says it was important to encourage Joe and his family because he knows firsthand how it feels to start from scratch and learn a new language.
The government has made language rules for new arrivals stricter, as part of its efforts to buttress the French language. Bill 96, which was adopted earlier this year, requires government officials to communicate with new immigrants exclusively in French, six months after their arrival — among other measures.
Advocates have pointed to the difficulties of learning a new language in that time frame.
For Joe, he says he is trying to learn French and will get a tutor.
DiNicolo says he popped by the restaurant recently with a message for Joe: “Keep your head up.”
“If it was me, I would pray that someone would do that for me,” said DiNicolo. “It just seems like a reasonable thing to do.”
Michael Golveo was one of those inspired by DiNicolo’s post to visit Bab Sang last week.
He says the story spoke to him because he too is an immigrant and moved to Quebec City three years ago. When he heard the family-run business was thinking about relocating because of some of the threats, he says he wanted to show support.
“I was a bit heartbroken,” said Golveo. “My way of support is to go to the restaurant and share what they had to offer in the community, which is their … delicious food.”
Hoffman Wolff was equally impressed by the food when he ordered take-out last week. He said it’s been encouraging to see how people in Quebec City responded.
“It’s been good to see the anglophone community come together on this but also I think there’s a lot of francophones who feel that probably the restaurant got a raw deal here originally and they want to support it,” said Wolff.
“[They] could have chosen to live anywhere in Canada but picked Quebec City and started a business here. That’s absolutely the sort of person we want in our community.”
Newly translated French menu
Joe’s situation also touched Terrance Keller, who reached out to help with translating the menu.
“What was at the centre of this was their menu, which really needed a lot of work. It definitely didn’t present a French face. And so I took it upon myself with Joe’s help,” said Keller, who moved to Quebec City from Saskatchewan 45 years ago.
Over the course of a week, Keller says he edited and translated the menu items into French, researching terms and dishes and getting some help editing the final document.
“I know that Google Translate’s out there and it appears very easy on the surface but it takes quite a lot of time actually,” said Keller.
All the publicity also brought in what Joe had been looking for: francophone staff. Joe says three CEGEP students, who were moved after hearing about his situation, signed on to work at the restaurant.
‘We’ve turned a corner’
Keller says Joe ought to be proud of himself for moving past this difficult time.
“I think this period was really not fun, he felt afraid for his kids a little bit. But I think we’ve turned a corner, I think the community is onside,” said Keller, as he looked at Joe seated next to him at one of Bab Sang’s tables. “I think you can imagine your problems are behind you.”
Earlier this week, Mayor Marchand said it was good to see people mobilizing to support the business.
Although he did not apologize for his earlier comment, he said he needed to be “even more benevolent”.
“My commitment regarding the French language doesn’t change but in a debate that can be acrimonious, it’s important to come back to the idea of community and what can be done to show good will, to welcome and to support, ” said Marchand, as reported by Radio Canada.
Moving forward, Joe says he wants to thank all of the customers who came by, even when the restaurant was closed, to offer support and put in orders.
“I made my mistake to make a menu in bilingual, it was my fault. But lots of supporters and Quebecois want me to reopen and they are really lovely people,” said Joe. “I love Quebec City.”