Archive for February 2008
Twelve posts and over 250 comments later, I have become quite bored with the AngryFrenchGuy controversy rocking the Québec blogosphere.
The whole thing had very little to do with me or my blog. It was family affair and I was only an innocent bystander.
All I have to say about the whole thing is here: Sympathie pour le Devil.
For those who like Reality TV:
In a post called Les Traîtres du Français about AngryFrenchGuy.com a blogger called Un Homme en Colère (isn’t this just wonderful!) writes:
“It goes without saying that I have no more respect for someone who claims to defend French in English than I do for someone who bombs a country in the name of peace or a rapist who rapes in the name of virginity.”
And later: “What you are doing is SHAMEFUL, a disaster. At least it is only small scale, but your contribution annihilates all the efforts of hundreds of Québécois like me and others who are trying to make French Québec’s only official Language.”
Goddam. Fighting off Barbara Kay on one side and now these clowns on the other. I must be doing something right.
The debate has spread to other blogs, including Renart L’éveillé‘s.
100% of AngryFrenchGuy.com’s angry Franco readers who took part in the Who is Nous poll consider American writer Jack Kerouac to be one of them: a Québécois. Two thirds of angry Anglos did not.
Jack Kerouak was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. His French-Canadian parents had been part of a massive wave of emigration to the factories of New England that followed the industrial revolution. In those days Lowell and many other northeastern American towns had thriving French-speaking communities known as “Little Canadas” and Kerouac himself did not start learning English until he went to school.
Recently discovered manuscripts of the Beat writer have revealed that Kerouac had attempted to write his classical On the Road novel in French several months before he finally decided to write it in English. In these archives were other previously unknown French writings by the author, including another manuscript entitled Les travaux de Michel Bretagne in which he writes: “I am French Canadian, brought to the world in New England. When I am angry I often swear in French. When I dream I often dream in French. When I cry I always cry in French.”
When Jack Kerouac was growing up in the 1920’s and 30’s, Lowell, Massachusetts and it’s 28 000 French-speakers could’ve been considered the fourth largest French-Canadian city after Montreal, Québec City and… Fall River, Masachusetts!
The once thriving Franco-American community that once had as many French-language newspapers as Québec has now all but disapeared. New immigrants stopped coming when the textile mills closed and half of the 900 000 French-Canadians returned home. The others eventually were assimilated into mainstream American society.
Click here or on the picture above for a link to a 1967 Radio-Canada interview of Jack Kerouac in French.
In 1977 The Charter of the French language, a.k.a. bill 101, made it illegal to put up commercial signs in English or any other language but French in the Canadian province of Québec.
From that moment on, French and only French was allowed on storefronts, signs and posters inside stores, billboards and all other signs of a commercial nature.
Yes, Montreal was going to become the first city in the world to have a Chinatown without any visible Chinese alphabet…
That… odd… situation ended in 1993, after quite a few court challenges, when the law was changed to allow other languages on commercial signs as long as French was present and “predominant”. Nonetheless, as the 2008 Irish Pub Troubles demonstrated, the law remained controversial.
Montreal vs. Montréal
In most countries the language of commercial signs is not something that is legislated and to those who know the Montreal of the 21st century where practically all signs are in French, the very idea of regulating the use of other languages might seem a little bit closed-minded. To understand the reason for this regulation, one must absolutely step back a few decades.
Back in the day, French was not so visible in downtown Montreal. American professor Marc Levine wrote in his 1990 book called The Reconquest of Montreal that “before 1960, although Montreal’s linguistic composition was predominantly French, its linguistic character was undeniably English. Montreal was the urban center of English Canada where downtown boardrooms functioned in English, the best neighbourhoods were inhabited by English-speakers, downtown was festooned with billboards and commercial signs in English.”
The sign law was seen by many Francophones as a way to proclaim the end of centuries of Anglo-Saxon domination in Québec and there was certainly some feelings of vindictiveness in the air.
Nonetheless, the French-only rule was a very powerful symbol of the political and economic empowerment of the French-speaking people that were the overwhelming majority in Montreal. It was a way for them to stake a claim on the city, it’s downto…, er, Centre-Ville and it’s boardrooms. It was the unapologetic claim of Montreal by the Québécois as their city and metropolis.
Some English-speaking Montrealers gracefully accepted the new ways. Others left for Toronto. Some took the Québec government to court on constitutional or freedom-of-speech grounds. Others refused to comply.
The pressure did not only come from the English-speaking side of Mount-Royal. When the Supreme Court of Canada struck down parts of the law in 1988, 25 000 people took to the streets of Montreal demanding that the law be maintained intact. This set off a series of events that culminated with Québec nearly leaving Canada in 1995.
Although usually loathed and misunderstood in the 9 other provinces, Québec’s language laws have some strong supporters in… native Canadian communities. The government of Nunavut, a Canadian territory where 83% of the population is Inuit, is currently working on a language law inspired by the one in Québec. (Really. Even the National Post had to deal with it…)
Bill 101 and 86 only apply to commercial signs. Nothing in the law says anything about the language of signs in Churches, non-profit organizations or, of course, private homes. Political organizations are exempt, as are cultural activities. Very bad pop bands like, say, Simple Plan can have English-only posters plastered all over the city if they think it makes them look cooler.
Businesses who do not comply with the sign law can be fined, but only if a private citizen files a complaint and after provincial bureaucrats of the Office Québécois de la Langue Française notifies them and gives them time to modify their signs appropriately. These bureaucrats were nicknamed “Language Police” by angry Anglo shopkeepers, which lead to the widespread myth in Canada that Québec has a uniformed Language Police patrolling the streets of Montreal!
Click here for information on the Charter of the French Language’s School Law.
We knew about the language crusaders and zealots who have made it a hobby of finding and reporting any and all infractions to the Charter of the French Language.
Now it seems there is a new phenomenon that will have to be addressed in Montreal: Language IEDs.
The first bomb went off last week after the Office Québécois de la Langue Française sent an inspector to McKibbin’s after one of the pub’s patron’s filed a report in which he complained about being refused service in French and English-only signs in the pub.
Québec’s language law is a complaints-based law, meaning that the OQLF only intervenes if it receives a formal complaint from a private citizen. The idea was that in small English-speaking communities like Hudson, Chelsea or Beaconsfield, no one would be bothered by the occasional English-only sign and no one would ever file a complaint. It was a way to protect the right of Québec’s French-speakers while giving different localities a way of regulating themselves, depending on their own demographic make-up.
This sensible arrangement was messed up by the rise of self-proclaimed vigilantes, Hall-monitor types who ventured deep into Anglo territory, looking for apostrophes and measuring the size of French letters on signs in Snowdon and Kirkland.
It now seems we will have to deal with another threat to harmonious cohabitation between French and English, this time coming from the other Side of the Main.
McKibbin’s Irish pub owners got the world’s media attention with two deliberate lies: that they had been told to take down vintage Irish posters and that they were told the staff spoke to much English amongst themselves. Vintage posters in English or any other language are perfectly legal and there is nothing the law can do about the language employee speak amongst themselves, unless an employee complains he was discriminated against, which wasn’t the case here. Check out the Montreal Gazette’s excellent article on the stunt. Or read the Toronto Star.
This case is about a customer being denied service in French and English-only menus are that are not vintage in any way.
There is no way a downtown businessperson in Montreal can reasonably claim to be in good faith when French customers are refused service in French in his establishment. There is no way a downtown business person does not know that English-only signs on a Montreal street are an open invitation for complaints to the OQLF.
In fact they are traps.
Anyone who has ever gone out for a beer in the western part of downtown where the now infamous Irish pub is situated knows that, although we can’t make generalizations, many establishments can be fairly hostile territory for French-speaker. The many other pubs on Bishop street that have English-only signs and unilingual staff cannot reasonably claim a spirit of openness and tolerance towards Francophones.
Exactly like the Francophones zealots who go out looking for language law violations and picking fights with Anglo shopkeepers, Bishop street pubs had laid a bomb and patiently waited for a Francophone customer to step on it.
This week it went off. TV reporters were called in. Web sites went up. The spin was ready.
Tick, tick, tick… boom.
How appropriate that it exploded at McKibbin’s, a pub named for Albert McKibbin, an Irishman who followed English orders as a soldier in the English Army…
Pauline Marois’ leadership of the Parti québécois is a first in more ways than one. She is, of course, the first woman to lead a major political party in Québec. She is also the first PQ leader not to be perfectly comfortable speaking English.
René Lévesque spoke English fluently, having grown up in the English-speaking town of New Carlisle and spending the Second World War in Europe with American troops. Although bilingual, neither Robert Bourassa nor Claude Ryan had his ease and fluency in English.
Jacques Parizeau evidently enjoyed using the British English he picked up at the London School of Economics while Robert Bourassa, a Harvard man himself, spoke his English adequately, without any style or apparent pleasure.
Jean Charest raised the Liberal standard considerably, but Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry were not impressed. (And I’m pretty sure Charest doesn’t speak Spanish or Latin like Landry!)
At the Federal level, with the notable exception of Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, the Liberal leaders speak even worse English than their provincial counterparts. Jean Chrétien carefully cultivated his non-threatening image with a heavily accented pea soup English while Stéphane Dion has the bookish accent of someone who learned the language by reading, not talking. Their Bloc opponent Gilles Duceppe’s English, while it would’ve been considered mediocre in Québec City, was paradoxically more than good enough by the standards set by Québec federal politicians.
Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin spoke easily in French and English, but they were Anglophones.
The current situation, with Pauline Marois speaking considerably less English than the fluent Jean Charest is the exception, not he norm.
Less English schools, more English in School
Pauline Marois is under attack these days for suggesting that the Québec education system should make sure that all children are functionally bilingual when they graduate from high school. She demanded that English be thought from the first grade on, and even that some form of immersion be created, by teaching geography and history in English, for example.
As expected, the cowardly Right of the independence movement opposed violently the plan. More frighteningly, some intellectual elites, such as author and playwright Victor-Lévy Beaulieu used the T word. Treason.
VLB, as he is known, certainly speaks English. He just published a 1000 page essay on James Joyce, one of the most notoriously difficult writers in the English language. Yet, the knowledge of English has never diminished his commitment to independence or his passion for the French language!
The knowledge of English has never had a negative correlation with support for Québec’s independence or support for the protection of French. Support for independence rises in the Francophone community with education level and income, both of which usually suggest some knowledge of English.
Nor does bilingualism diminish a student’s ability to speak and write in their mother tongue. Many studies have demonstrated that the kids who go through the French-immersion program in the rest of Canada score better in ENGLISH than those who go through the regular program!
The modern independence movement was born in Montreal’s bilingual Francophone intellectual community, inspired by hearing Martin Luther King and Gandhi speak about freedom, justice and liberty, in English!
80% to 90% of young people in Scandinavian countries speak English. Yet, they are still Swedes and Finns, still speak Swedish and Finnish and still play hockey not football. If the Québec school system could properly teach English to Québec’s youth, the English language CEGEPs and universities would not look so attractive to young people who want to practice the language.
By suggesting that the knowledge of English is dangerous for the people, that they are not ready or that it could threaten the integration of immigrants, Pauline Marois’ elitist bilingual opponents like Victor Lévy Beaulieu only managed to demonstrate that speaking English won’t make you smarter either.
(Also published in the Montreal Gazette as Pauline Marois and her problem with English)
Two out of three participants in the AngryFrenchGuy’s Who is Nous? poll feel the late Oscar Peterson should be included in the definition of a Québécois. Both Francophones and Anglophones were split 50/50 on the issue but 100% of Allophones who answered did not hesitate to say Oscar Peterson is one of us.
It is interesting to note that in a previous poll 100% of Allophones said another former Montrealer, Leonard Cohen, was not a Québécois.
Oscar Peterson was born in Montreal in 1925. He grew up in Saint-Henri, a working class neighborhood that was mainly populated by the French-Canadian factory workers who worked along the Lachine Canal but also had small Irish and black pockets. Oscar Peterson’s father was a CN railways porter, one of the few professions available to black men at that time. St-Henri is situated right at the base of Mount-Royal and the massive mansions of Westmount, then Canada’s wealthiest municipality, towered directly above.
Other famous Montrealers from Saint-Henri include fellow jazz pianist Oliver Jones, the legendary strong man Louis Cyr, comedian Yvon Deschamps and the former Parti Québécois MNA and first female cabinet minister in Québec, Louise Payette.
Oscar Peterson left Montreal in 1949 for the United States where he played with many of the greatest jazz musicians of his time. He lived his later years in Toronto where he was chancellor at York university and even considered for the position of Lt-Governor of Ontario.
Click on the picture above for a link to a rare Radio-Canada archive of Oscar Peterson speaking French and playing one of his most famous compositions: Place St-Henri.