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Language faux pas mar Vimy preparations

Ottawa also scrambles over lunch money for students

From Friday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — As Canadians prepare to mark the heroic victory at Vimy Ridge, the government is correcting French grammar and spelling errors on plaques at the memorial and explaining why students who attend the battle's 90th anniversary ceremonies must buy their own lunch.

Officials at Canada's Veterans Affairs Department were red-faced Thursday when national news organizations reported that French signs inside the memorial's visitors centre were riddled with spelling and grammatical errors typically made by someone who is not writing in their first language.

The French word chambres was spelled “chambers,” explosifs was spelled “explosives” and allemandes was incorrectly given a capital A. Verbs were badly conjugated, a land-mine was referred to as “ le mine” rather than “ la mine,” and some of the phrases were simply not part of French vernacular.

“The directions that we sent over to France were very clear,” Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson told reporters after the errors were discovered. “We want them dealt with very quickly and effectively. And it's being done.”

Mr. Thompson said the foamboard panels have been removed so the mistakes will not be on display this weekend when world leaders, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, gather in France to mark the 90th anniversary of the battle at Vimy Ridge.

The four-day assault in 1917, in which 3,598 Canadians perished and thousands were wounded, marked a coming of age for Canada's forces and a turning point for the Allies of the First World War.

The plaques detailing the fight were prepared by volunteers who have a keen interest in history and were not the work of anyone in the Veterans Affairs Department, said a spokesman in Mr. Thompson's office.

He said he could not provide the names of those responsible, or the name of their group, other than to say they are Canadian.

Mr. Thompson would not say how much the corrections cost, but said cost was not an issue. He had been told the corrected plaques may not be restored to their positions until Monday, the day of the anniversary celebration.

“When mistakes happen we want to be forgiving,” he said, “but we also have to understand that we have to make it right and we are committed to doing that.

Mr. Thompson also found himself having to explain Thursday why his department was not buying lunch for 3,600 students who are going to France to participate in the anniversary celebrations.

Trip organizers told teachers in an e-mail that the government said it would provide lunch for the students on April 9, the day of the ceremony at the Canadian memorial.

But Mr. Thompson said Thursday that no such offer had been made and the students would have to pick up their own lunch tab.

“I think it was a misunderstanding, to be perfectly frank,” the minister told reporters. “It was very clear from the get-go that the students and the schools raised their own funding independent of Veterans Affairs to do this.”

As for the mistakes on the plaques, said Mr. Thompson, “it's very difficult to be critical of volunteers.” But the fact that government employees were not behind the French-language gaffes on the plaques did little to appease people like retired Colonel Michel Drapeau who was director of the National Defence headquarters secretariat and now teaches at the University of Ottawa.

“I am anything but impressed with the French grammar and the French syntax and the like on the [visitor's centre at the] monument,” said Col. Drapeau.

“We come across as amateurs. And veterans, including myself, will see that as a bit of a slap in the face, an absence of care, an absence of attention. And, in a country like Canada with two languages that are official, there is absolutely no reason for it. The excuse that we have left this to volunteers simply doesn't wash. It just doesn't cut it with me.”

NDP MP Yvon Godin said he will lodge a complaint with the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages to make sure this type of mistake does not occur in the future. Mr. Godin does not blame the volunteers.

“They are not translators. It's not their fault. They are just volunteer people that helped. But is our country at the point that it cannot pay expert people to do it?” he asked.

“The minister is responsible for it and it means they have to put [on] safeguards so those types of things don't happen.”

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