The Glorious Bilingual Montreal of the 1940’s

with 83 comments

The AngryFrenchGuy and his grand-father

Did French and English Montrealers ever live in the same city?

Was there ever a Golden Age when French-speakers looking west and English-speakers looking east had a converging point of view on the history and future of Montreal?

Consider this:

In 1941 the National Film Board of Canada hired my grand-father, Vincent Paquette, as the agency’s first French-Canadian filmmaker and head the embryonic “French Unit”

It is important to emphasize that, as his name does not indicate, Vincent Paquette was as bicultural a Canadian as this country has ever produced. His Franco-Catholic father, Albéric Paquette, met his mother, Eva May Hathaway, the daughter of a Loyalist minister, in Toronto. The couple raised their children in Montreal and in the still very English Sherbrooke, Québec of the 1920’s where my grand-father grew up thinking of himself as an English kid.

“In Sherbrooke I went to French primary school”, he wrote – in French – in his unfinished memoirs. “Since my mother tongue was English, since English was the usual language at home and in most of the streets, it made for a rather difficult start.”

He went on to complete all of his studies in French, studying in Montreal’s Collège Saint-Laurent with such Québec icons as Félix Leclerc.

That said, it is needless to say that his English background had something to do with the NFB’s decision to put a 26 year old with no filmmaking experience in charge of the Board’s first French filmmaking department, a department originally created to translate propaganda films during the Second World War.

In 1942 my grand-father set off to direct a film on the celebrations commemorating the tercentenary of Montreal, which would become the first movie ever shot – as opposed to translated – in Canada’s two official languages.

Even with his Upper Canadian roots counterbalancing his Franco-Catholic education, it quickly became clear that my grand-father’s understanding of Montreal was not what the head office had in mind. Right from the start, serious incompatibility between the English and the French perspectives became apparent and on at least two occasions proper Anglophones were hired to finish the project.

In the end my grand-father would get credits for both versions of the film, but while his cut was used for the French version, the English version followed the storyboard from upstairs.

NFB historian Pierre Véronneau writes about differences between the French and English versions in his PhD. thesis: “It would be quite simple to show that the English version trivializes certain actions or certain situations perceived as important or heroic by the Québécois.”

The French version was anchored around four themes: modern Montreal, French Montreal, Montreal at war and religious Montreal. Véronneau notes that the modern and religious themes occupy more or less equal time in the French version, and that the latter is all but evacuated from the English versions.

The religious images are quite frankly astonishing for someone born after the Quiet Revolution. It is near impossible today to imagine the bishop taking the vows of hundreds of new priests in the streets of downtown Montreal, surrounded by thousands of nuns in black and white and clerics in red and gold. The protestant businessmen of the Sun Life building might have been the future of Montreal, but the Catholics had cooler hats

On the war effort, the commentary of the French version went: “Today, grandiose realization of Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve’s dream, Montreal put all of it’s energy and all of it’s resources to the service of peace in plenitude. Concordia Salus.” Véronneau wonders aloud: “Can we see here a covert position? A diaphanous echo to the French-Canadian resistance to any direct participation to the war?”

Athough the metaphore is not quite politically correct, I do note with much relief that my Grand-father had not succumbed to the fascist muses: “Paquette makes the Iroquois of yesterday the German of today, and the determination of the Québécois to combat him, eternal.”

On the question of language, “The English version emphasizes the bilingual character of the city while the French version underlines it’s French character.” Hum… sounds familiar….

Vincent Paquette made a few other films for the NFB before moving on to a career in advertising and the federal public service. Although he never was known as a nationalist, Eva May Hathaway’s son voted YES in the 1980 referendum on Québec sovereignty.

Written by angryfrenchguy

April 24, 2008 at 12:38 pm

83 Responses

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  1. Not to criticize angryfrenchguy or hoo-boy, but it’s funny how one troll can sidetrack what was for several days essentially an intelligent, respectful discussion!


    April 30, 2008 at 10:49 am

  2. Yes, right, sorry! No more North Korea hockey jokes.

    I’m wondering, btw, about the francophones on this blog. Obviously people like AFG, Acajack, and MGP don’t speak “l’anglais qui s’attrape.” I mean, maybe that’s how you first learned English, but without flattery you folks write better English than the average anglophone does on the Globe and Mail comment boards (my sole index these days). MGP even spells “behaviour” in -our, which is deeply gratifying. So, how did y’all attain it? I mean: near-perfect written English. English-language schools? Love of English literature? Living & working in English? And how does that relate, if at all, to the education provisions of Bill 101?


    April 30, 2008 at 10:44 pm

  3. Hoo-boy

    Thats an interesting question…

    Of course, this is an english ( for the most part)web site of which the AGF has taken a lot of flack from his Quebecois comrades..



    April 30, 2008 at 11:49 pm

  4. ABP — Well, I’m envious of him too.

    It was interesting, I thought, that the FLQ wannabes who vandalised Trudeau’s tomb the other day misspelled “traître” (as “traîte”). It was quite a statement of the vital importance of Bill 101, though they did get the circumflex right.


    May 1, 2008 at 1:33 am

  5. hoo boy… i’ll tell u something…

    Bill 101 has nothing to do with mispelling traître. People wrote traîte because that’s how people often prononce it in Quebec, without the last ‘r’.

    Bill 101 has to do with language identity not skills.

    The fact that people write:
    – how r u?
    – g8!

    in usa doesn’t mean english is in danger.

    quebecois separatiste

    May 1, 2008 at 2:02 am

  6. Hoo-boy:

    To answer your question about language proficiency…

    I am actually a former francophone from outside Quebec, born of two francophone parents (both also francophones from the ROC). We always spoke French in the home, but since we moved around the ROC a lot for my father’s job, I ended up going to English schools for a number of years when we lived in areas that had no French schools at all. All in all, about half my elementary and high school was in English schools. I also went to French immersion at one point because that was the only French-language schooling available in the city we lived in at the time.

    I also went to university in English because the program I wanted to study in wasn’t available in French in the area in which we lived at that time.

    I have lived in Quebec for about one third of my life (the most recent third actually). My work life has been a mix of both languages, with some periods mostly in English and some mostly if not exclusively in French.

    I do not consider myself typical of francophones in general, and actually I find it is a mistake in fora such as these to take one’s experience and transpose it upon everyone else. My experience and second language abilities (I am not boasting here, BTW) are certainly not common among French-speaking residents of Quebec. Nor are they typical of francophones from outside Quebec, since those who would have my level of English (and there are quite a few outside Quebec), would have seen their French suffer as a result and would not be able to take part in a written discussion like this in their own mother tongue. At least not without polluting the forum with bastardized French laden with spelling mistakes and anglicisms. Fortunately, I have been able to maintain my French at the same level as my English.

    I am a big believer in what they call “additive bilingualism”, in the sense that your second language is an enriching add-on. This is opposed to “subtractive bilingualism”, where the second language interferes with your competency in your first language. A lot of francophones in Canada (including the vast majority of those in the ROC) unknowingly practise subtractive bilingualism, and often end up being crappy in both official languages, with bastardized mother tongue French on the one hand, and nowhere near native speaker fluency in English on the other.


    May 1, 2008 at 5:21 am

  7. A few months at Ms. Weeks daycare at the NDG YMCA is all the English education I’ve had myself.

    I’d guess I learned English with a mix of English speaking cousins, Sesame Street, The Royal St.Lawrence yacht Club, The National and The Gazette at my dad’s place, and the intense desire to find out what a curious little monkey with my name was up to.


    May 1, 2008 at 9:05 am

  8. Merci, les gars, I was just curious. Not much bearing on Bill 101 after all.

    In this context, though, the misspelling of “traître” by the vandals is important, I think. I have nothing against local pronunciations of words — I try and cultivate my Ottawa accent as much as possible — and in fact the greatest piece of urban poetry I’ve ever seen is a long poem written in phonetic Joual, genus hard-core, painted on a wall by Carré St.-Louis (south side, in an alley, on the east-facing wall, above eye-level — it must still be there).

    So, to reply to QS, it *does* mean that English is endangered if people write “great” as “gr8” and “how are you” as “how r u.” It means that written, and eventually spoken, English is getting ready for a wild underground rollercoaster ride into something else, just like Latin in Late Antiquity. Isn’t that what we fierce anti-assimilationists dread in the case of French, that it will get “naturally” blended with English and emerge, centuries hence, as some peculiar argot? It seems to me that the romantic “spell it like you say it” school has nothing but contempt for the idea of purity in language. This is why we French Canadians and English Canadians need to band together: at least in English Canada, no one believes you if you say you’re in favour of good language *per se* — they just think you’re some kind of snob. But if one could point to Quebec and say, “I’m in favour of good French, good English, good Swahili, good Mandarin — good *language* — just like those guys in Montreal!” then the strength-in-numbers thing would kick in.

    QS, I can’t believe you really think it’s acceptable to spell “traître” as “traîte.” Tu cé que cé stupide : )


    May 1, 2008 at 11:44 am

  9. Sorry, I meant to tie it all up by saying that if francophones can wield English as well as this, surely to God it’s proof that it is humanly possible for anglophones to at least obey the rules of capitalisation and whatnot.

    I really think we could make headway in both battles — preserving English and preserving French — if we presented a united front. We should set up an unofficial Académie on the French model.


    May 1, 2008 at 11:53 am

  10. “Additive bilingualism” — my new mantra.


    May 1, 2008 at 11:56 am

  11. Hoo-boy:

    Joining forces to fight the common enemy together! This has been suggested and attempted many times before in this country, but always to no avail.

    Now, I am of course aware there is concern on the part of some English-speaking people around the world that the use of English as an international lingua franca (spoken more often than not by non-native speakers with wildly varying proficiency) will lead to a type of “pidgin English” that will replace Shakespeare’s tongue pretty much everywhere, including the “anglo world”. I have seen this first-hand when travelling abroad, and this very rudimentary English that is dumbed-down so everyone with even a minimal knowledge of the language can understand is actually quite widespread in international fora and conferences.

    On the other hand, although the quality of the French spoken in Canada is a concern, I can’t say that this is the main focus of the battle at the moment. People here (in Quebec anyway) are way more preoccupied with non-francophones not speaking any French at all, and are generally very, very forgiving of mistakes. Moving things up to an environment that fosters excellent grammar and syntax is still some years away, perhaps Phase II of Quebec’s great language planning adventure. Same goes for francophones outside Quebec: they’re more preoccupied with their kids and grandkids not kissing the French language off completely.


    May 1, 2008 at 12:57 pm

  12. I appreciate that preservation is priority #1, Acajack, I’m just thinking that it would be a good strategy, to that end, if French in North America had a solid rallying point. Of course I’d just like to exploit that for the sake of English.

    Minor quibble: while it certainly is a bit disconcerting to have English taken up, not always with the best precision, by the world, I’m more worried about the decline of English among anglophones themselves. I mean, you can’t demand too much of people who are using it as a second, third, of seventh language, but it would be nice if young anglophones could spell. And instead we get this wretched triumphalist discourse about “Oh, English was always a bastard”; which was true until about 1600 . . .


    May 1, 2008 at 5:44 pm

  13. “Joining forces to fight the common enemy together! This has been suggested and attempted many times before in this country, but always to no avail.”

    Well, we’re still here, aren’t we? Anyway, has there ever been a better (or worse) time? We’ll be waiting a long time if we wait for help from Europe or the USA.


    May 1, 2008 at 5:50 pm

  14. Acajack, quality of French is a major concern, in certain fields. I’m doing a bachelor’s degree in high school education in French at the UdM and they are really putting us through our paces when it comes to the quality of our language both at the written and spoken level. During the oral exam, they deduct points for an accent that’s “too quebecois”. Quebecois figures of speech are frowned upon. It’s a big issue, in my field of study and even though it may not be as big a concern as the number of people in the province able to speak the language, it’s definitely an issue that’s well discussed.


    May 1, 2008 at 11:24 pm

  15. I went to see the movie “No country for old men” a few months ago. In Texas english. I would say I missed 10-15% of the movie because im not familiar with the Texas accent and local expressions. Maybe it is the same for a french from france watching a quebecois movie.

    Now english is not endangered in Texas. Even the large spanish speaking population understand they are in english territory.

    I am not saying the quality of french is not important but I view that as a separate issues from Bill 101.

    quebecois separatiste

    May 2, 2008 at 1:32 am

  16. The born-again FLQ vandalizing yahoos struck again this week, at a Legion hall in Montreal (Lachine more precisely). Don’t know if it was the same bunch but they have the exact same spelling skills as the first gang. This gang managed to spell Papineau wrong (Papineua). They wrote some slogans in French, plus “Bravo to the Papineua (sic) cell” in English!

    Since when do FLQ – and Quebec nationalists in general – write their grafitti in English? And since when do francophones not know that the long diphthong (I think this is the right term) for the “o” sound is spelled “eau” and not “eua” in French?

    Very weird.


    May 2, 2008 at 10:14 am

  17. “Minor quibble: while it certainly is a bit disconcerting to have English taken up, not always with the best precision, by the world, I’m more worried about the decline of English among anglophones themselves. I mean, you can’t demand too much of people who are using it as a second, third, of seventh language, but it would be nice if young anglophones could spell. And instead we get this wretched triumphalist discourse about “Oh, English was always a bastard”; which was true until about 1600 . . .”

    Your last point is interesting. I’ve often heard second-language English speakers, most of them Canadian francophones of course, say that the great thing about English is that you can make it up as you go along. And that what you say will still be comprehensible. I’ve also heard people say that aside from imperialism (first British, then American), English’s tremendous global advantage is directly related to the language’s fabulous malleability. All of which I guess is related to the “bastard” theory.

    I myself tend to be on your side Hoo boy, and cringe at stuff like “I done it” and “you did good”, which seem to be part of accepted usage these days. (I cringe at a lot of stuff I hear in French as well, BTW.)


    May 2, 2008 at 10:21 am

  18. Boy, the Canadiens are sure playing well in the 1st period.

    “I’ve often heard second-language English speakers, most of them Canadian francophones of course, say that the great thing about English is that you can make it up as you go along.”

    Heheh, yeah, that’s sort of true in that so many nouns can be used as verbs, and gerunds are both easy to form and used more extensively. So vocab is a lot tighter.

    “I’ve also heard people say that aside from imperialism (first British, then American), English’s tremendous global advantage is directly related to the language’s fabulous malleability. All of which I guess is related to the “bastard” theory.”

    I suppose, but I think imperialism is the main reason. I mean, the world had no problem learning French in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and that’s when y’all were still using “l’on” all the friggin’ time.


    May 3, 2008 at 6:51 pm

  19. “Did French and English Montrealers ever live in the same city?”

    Anglos have their culture that French Quebeckers ignore and vice-versa. (think about Jean-René Dufort at le gala des Oliviers asking anglos if they knew about our comedians and most of them did not).

    There seems to be a fracture in Montreal, it almost look like the East doesn’t live in the same country as the West Island. That is why if Quebec is to separate, it would be completely illogical to think that the West Island would come in softly, they are culturally opposite to everything Quebec nationalism stand for that is why the West Island of Montreal would probably end up in Canada’s end, partition would be inevitable.

    Tym Machine

    May 21, 2008 at 10:47 pm

  20. @Quebecois separatiste,

    Nobody understand the Texas accent except texan people themselves.

    It is almost like a code language just like Quebeckers have their own “joual” code language or Belgium talks very differently from France people (actually, I find Belgian accent closer to Quebecois accent, some even think that you come from Belgium when you go to France and Paris).

    Besides, I never listen to French translation, it’s a universal French that no one talk. It’s an insult to everyone so much that lots of movie are retranslated in France because they don’t have the French accent enough and their expressions.

    I even tried spanish translation but I am so annoyed by spanish, it’s unbelievable. I am never going to get that language nor do I want to.

    Tym Machine

    May 21, 2008 at 10:52 pm

  21. @Acajack,

    It’s true that English to me has always been more inclusive than let’s say French in Quebec.

    Since it’s threaten, we live in a paranoid state of mind and we listen to a guy like Gilles Proulx (great radio show man BTW) correcting his auditors each time they make a mistake or say an “anglicisme”.

    Whereas English has always been very keen at using other words from other languages, borrowing and stealing without remorse and I love it, it’s great. Think about all the great French words used in English like let’s say Chef, cliché, rendez-vous, en masse, largesse and what not.

    Tym Machine

    May 21, 2008 at 10:58 pm

  22. @anonymous:

    “I don’t know of any law that makes it mandatory to watch a certain amount of Canadian films and channels, or a law that makes it mandatory to buy at least a Canadian book every month.”

    It’s coming, it’s coming, don’t worry. Our bureaucrats have got all their “productive” minds on that one.

    Protectionism at work exponent 100.

    Tym Machine

    May 21, 2008 at 11:02 pm

  23. @AFG : ”Just to make it clear, when I say Anglos are prisoners of English, I sincerly feel most of them are held against their will.

    I spent most of the winter in Tremblant surrounded by many English-Canadians, Brits and Aussies who were there for the season. Many spoke some French, most were determined to learn and did. But on top of the effort of learning a language it was as if they had to fight to use it. Francos would just constantly speak English to them. Either because it was just more easy or out of habit.”

    This is a very weird feeling I get from reading about the Welsh linguistic situation too. The Welsh speakers are so adept of code-switching that English-speakers are, can we say, ”denied” access to the language because everybody switch to English.

    It’s a vicious circle : The more we switch to English the less newcommers are exposed to our language, the less motivation they have to learn it. This is why we should always speak French. Excusez… «C’est pour ça qu’y faut tout l’temps parler français. Sinon on donne pas la chance aux autres de participer à notre culture.»


    December 13, 2011 at 3:03 pm

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