Every so often, I’m asked how I managed to live in the Montreal area for 80 years and still remain fluently unilingual. Believe me, it wasn’t difficult. In fact, I decided the French language wasn’t for me as early as the 4th grade, so it had nothing to do with politics. Or even francophones.
No, I blame my English classmates, who made life miserable by ridiculing my French accent during French class. And I wasn’t their only target. Even though it was just boys being boys and not meant to be mean-spirited, it was tough for a 10-year-old to handle. You weren’t exactly being bullied, but it felt like it. You wanted to hide, but where do you go?
Every night, you prayed that the French teacher would just leave you alone and spare you the embarrassment and humiliation. I imagine many French kids went through the same scenario, judging from my interactions with francophones today. Frequently, the francophone will get three words into our conversation, stop suddenly, and then say, “Please excuse my accent; I know it’s not very good.” My response was — and still is: “Your accent is fine; I only wish mine were as good.”
But my accent wasn’t the only thing holding me back. It was also the times, in the 1950s. For one thing, French immersion in school didn’t exist, and that was a game changer. You weren’t required to speak French to get most jobs. And we seldom interacted with French people because the French lived mostly in Montreal’s East End and the English in the West End and western suburbs. It wasn’t because we disliked one another; both groups simply felt more comfortable in their different solitudes.
With languages, practice makes perfect, and we had no one to practise French with — even if we wanted to learn the language, which, to be honest, we didn’t. We were just kids in our own little bubble. It was as if the French didn’t exist, and I’m sure French kids felt the same about les autres. Out of sight, out of mind. But here’s the thing: when we did get together — usually while playing sports — there was never any friction. It’s the same way today as adults, and that must drive separatists and some nationalists bonkers.
In 80 years, not once have I had a run-in with a francophone over language. In fact, if anything, the French are very accommodating. If I start a conversation with my fractured French, usually the French “listener” takes pity and switches to English. In fact, most francophones enjoy showing off their English-speaking skills and take speaking to an anglophone in stride.
Obviously, there are exceptions on both sides.
When I hear English people say they’ve had numerous clashes with francophones, I just roll my eyes. Numerous clashes? What on earth did they do? Dump on Les Canadiens … criticize Céline Dion?
There are those on both sides of this great divide who dislike anyone who’s not like them, but that’s just life. Don’t believe me? Go on the internet: it’s the same few French and English political junkies making the same rants every day. Surely, their lives away from their computers aren’t really that bad — and don’t call me Shirley. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
Because our two groups generally get along, it’s sometimes difficult to understand why francophones keep electing these separatists, although, given Quebec’s political landscape, what choice do they have? Does it bother francophones that these same politicians seem determined to make life miserable for anglophones and allophones?
My feeling is that many francophones realize that even though the government often treats English people like second-class citizens, we still have it pretty good in Quebec. And we do.
Actually, I should say Montreal, not Quebec, because that’s what this is all about. Travel 45 minutes outside the city limits, in any direction, and you can live your life entirely in French. Still, we keep hearing from the government that French is in decline, and that only it can save it.
The francophones who truly believe that seem more than willing to put up with some government dictates that even THEY consider irritants. You can hardly blame them. Against difficult odds, they desperately want to preserve their language. They know that once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.
So the day after voting in the separatists, many of these same folks are downing beer with their English golfing buddies and still discussing hockey around the water cooler — that is, if they even go to the office these Covid days. That’s the reality in Montreal and, generally, throughout the entire province. ALL visitors are welcome.
But that doesn’t stop separatists from trying to divide us. Most reasonable anglophones agree that tough measures were needed in education, immigration and the workforce to protect the French language. Those measures have worked. We can argue forever about how government went about it, and get nowhere. This isn’t about that.
Life in Quebec isn’t perfect, but it’s not because of the people. We get along and always will — despite our politicians.
They should be ashamed.