On Québec’s Segregated Past and One million English Words

with 215 comments

End of the British Empire

So the English language got it’s 1,000,000th word this summer.

This, of course is one of the great achievements of the great English adventurers who travelled the world, befriended the locals with whom they shared the English language while simultaneously incorporating their lands and lexicon into the British Empire.

That story reminded me of a time I visited my grand-mother about 4 or 5 years ago.

Her place was just a short walk from my place.  I was near Place St.Henri where grown men drank Molson Export before noon on weekdays with no shirt on.  Thanks to some family money that will not be coming my way she was the token french lady at the Place Kensington residence for old English people and ate her breakfast two tables away from where the Senator Hartland Molson ate his own breakfast wearing a suit and a tie.

That night my grandma wasn’t seated with her usual gang. Someone had broken their hip and someone else was at a christening or bar mitzva somewhere in the States. We were seated with two other ladies I didn’t know but who seemed nice enough. We exchanged polite greatings, they commended me for being such a great grandson and then when I thought I had done socializing I ignored them and started chatting with my grandmother.

As my grand-mother was giving the waitress a quarter or something so she would bring me a double serving of white fish one of the ladies leaned over to me and asked:

-What was that language you were just speaking? Was that French?

-Yes it was, I said.

I wasn’t surprised by the question. Place Kensington has plenty of American residents who were following their sons up the corporate ladder. They just spent a couple of years in Montreal until the next transfer and rarely ventured beyond Tony’s Shoe Store on Greene Avenue. They knew nothing about Québec’s linguistic situation and they understandably didn’t care if the help spoke French or Spanish or whatever it is Philipnas speak….

-Where are you from, I asked?

-Drummondville, she answered.

Now I was surprised. Drummondville, of course, is the home of the Madrid Bigfoot Diner, the mandatory pit stop on highway 20 for travellers between Montreal and Québec and the owner of the biggest collection of slightly-smaller-than-lifesize plastic dinosaures in the world. It is also a smallish town that, today, is pretty much entirely French-speaking.

Yet here was this lady who had been born in Québec, who had lived her life, not in the sizable English-speaking enclaves of Montreal, but in a tiny rural French-Canadian village that had some farms and two or three factories and she wasn’t able to, nevermind speak, recognize the French language.

English the great language of intercultural meeting and discovery?  Give me a fucking break.

Like the great linguist Alastair Pennycook said: « The notion of English as a great borrowing language also seems to suggest a view of colonial relations in which the British intermingled with colonized people, enriching English as communed with the locals. Such a view, however, is hardly supported by colonial history. »

Even my separatist-fearing grandmother would lose patience with her companions.

-She handed me a napkin! I said « merci » and she had to ask me what I meant! Seigneur! What’s wrong with these people?

This from a woman, I remind you, who spent her summers at the Royal St.Lawrence Yacht Club and read the Montreal Gazette every morning.

There was a distinguished Jewish woman from Argentina who would come over after every meal and chat for a few minutes in impeccable French with my grand-mother. There was also another woman from eastern Europe –there was a rumour she was a hungarian baronnes or countess—who would always cordially say « bonjour ». The staff, of course had been born after the Empire and all spoke French.

But I never heard an Montrealer Anglo resident so much as salute her in French.

Now I am not saying that Place Kensington was representative of today’s enlightened Québec anglophonie. I am absolutely aware that Place Kensington is where the ghost of Montreal’s past goes to die.

But don’t tell me that Québec never existed. I’ve been there.

Written by angryfrenchguy

July 27, 2009 at 4:06 pm

215 Responses

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  1. Antonio,

    “Sure, I can agree with you that the kida would benefit in many ways. The insecurity I’m talking about is in the way the Quebecois feel about their language in every area where it is in close contact with English. Wherever you have English competing with French, you have a perceived threat.”

    Please, that is ridiculous. Francophones do not have caustic reaction every time they hear English spoken. This is moot anyway because English will not be competing schools because the language of instruction everywhere will be in French only, except in courses that deal with learning multiple languages like English. Therefore, I still don’t think there would be any kind of insecurity in having a single school system.

    “Would you say, knowing what you do now, that we should force francophone shopkeepers to share the whole of the city with anglos in the interest of harmony?”

    If you mean that francophone shopkeepers should have to speak English to customers or provide English services, the answer is no. Successful harmony is when the minority group learns the language of the majority and cooperates with it. In the case of Quebec, it is the onus for anlgophones to learn French but it is not so for francophones to learn English, although I do think that they should because English is a useful language to have but I leave this for francophones to decide for themselves. The common language of Quebec is French, or should be. That said, I would like all Quebecers to be at least trilingual, with French obviously as one of those languages.

    “This sounds reasonable. Having half the parents at every school in western Montreal meeting with the principal in English might look like institutionalized bilingualism to some people (and we know how cool those people are with THAT) but I’d have no problem with it.”

    I am glad that we agree on something at least.

    “I’m not worried, but then again I don’t think francophones are in danger of mass assimilation either. And even if they were, my own belief is “oh well, shit happens”.

    Well, then. Now, I strongly disagree with you on that. I live in Quebec because I like the French fact here and I want it to stay that way. I support any measure that reinforces this French fact. I feel that francophones are not doing enough on this front. They are wimps and have no backbone, to put it politely.


    July 30, 2009 at 9:07 pm

  2. And so spoke Tony K, blessed defender of the english language in North-America.

    Quick, someone call the UN.

    Licensor 101

    July 30, 2009 at 9:30 pm

  3. Perhaps it’s the way I read it. I didn’t read it to mean that:

    “Montreal anglos who have learned textbook French can’t understand the French of rural Quebecois”

    What I though he meant was that:

    “Montreal anglos who have learned textbook French report having difficulty understanding Quebec francophones in general (regardless of where they live)”

    Also, to me there isn’t really that big a difference in French according to regions in Quebec. Differences are more related to social class: a mechanic sounds quite similar in Gatineau, Montreal or Drummondville. A lawyer sounds essentially the same to me in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec City or Rimouski.


    July 30, 2009 at 9:38 pm

  4. Tony,

    Quebec will never do this because it doesn’t need to do this. And neither do investors need it. These days, people don’t necessarily reside in the places they invest. They invest all over the world but raise the kids in a McMansion in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, the Home Counties of England, Lyngby outside Copenhagen or Segrate outside Milan.

    They don’t care what language people speak at Jean Coutu on Cote-des-Neiges, anymore than they care what is the language of the song is playing on the radio of a Subway in Belo Horizonte.

    Language may be a big deal to you, but it’s not to the international business community. If you think it is, that shows how little you know about international business.

    These people are used to investing billions in places where everything is written in an alphabet with completely different characters! I hardly think seeing a red octogon with the word ARRET in the middle of it in Montreal is going to destabilize them.


    July 30, 2009 at 10:32 pm

  5. “As stated, informal and private communication is none of our business. However, if parents insist on receiving such communication in English, and the school can’t do that, then the parents should comply with the school’s position.”

    What are you trying to propose here? Though I support one unified school system based in French, the notion that the school would be unable to communicate in English is absurd. Adopting a single system doesn’t mean abandoning English, but only that French would be the dominant language of instruction.

    “Anglophones don’t have to lose their language and culture and don’t have to be assimilated by learning French and participating in Quebec society. Don’t worry about that.”

    That is rich coming from a paranoid Francophone who believes his own language and culture aren’t strong enough to survive a bilingual society.


    July 30, 2009 at 11:06 pm

  6. Ce n’est pas une segregation des immigrants. C’est une segregation des Anglos-Quebecois. Volontaire mais myope.


    July 30, 2009 at 11:10 pm

  7. “Real nations don’t need artificial support for their culture and language; real countries don’t need welfare payments in order to pretend that their economy is actually working well when it isn’t.”

    I would venture to argue that Quebec doesn’t NEED these things. Rather Canada is too weak or indecisive to say no. So Quebec gets the best of both worlds. Sounds pretty clever to me. You see, you’ve fallen into the trap set by French Canada.


    July 30, 2009 at 11:16 pm

  8. A necessary means to an end. Now is the time for that dinosaur to go the way of the church schools.


    July 30, 2009 at 11:18 pm

  9. I’m with you Nick2olas but I also stand by my original statement which is directed 100% at AFG’s post about an old soon-to-be-deceased woman from the sticks who couldn’t understand his French. She may already be gone for all we know, so why beat a dead horse?

    The point wasn’t that Anglos shouldn’t change, it was that we have to let by-gones be by-gones and move forward.

    Maybe I missed the larger metaphor of AFGs post, but I don’t actually believe there was one.


    July 30, 2009 at 11:25 pm

  10. We’re agreeing here. No?


    July 30, 2009 at 11:26 pm

  11. Who has access to both systems? That’s not what it says in my play book.


    July 30, 2009 at 11:28 pm

  12. on parle d’une auto-segregation volontaire..


    July 30, 2009 at 11:44 pm

  13. @ Edward: So long as you move forward. And of course different groups have different things they choose to hold on to and not hold on to for different reasons.

    Another thing that strikes me as an outsider about this discourse is the hanging on to things, and how it manifests in the citating of dates that the Franco-Quebecois do. Portentous use of 1760, and 1912. It’s the “je me souviens” of grievance. (Thanks for your post on that btw, Pur Laine.) Reminds me of how Greeks hang on to 1453 and 1922—while Australians, being anglo-hegemons, don’t feel the need to talk much about 1788 or 1901 or 1915. We’ve rediscovered nationalism in Australia the past ten years, featuring pilgrimages to Gallipoli; but the emphasis on the date, as opposed to the gesture, is a hit-the-books memorialisation that I think is more compatible with grievance than celebration.

    But sure, move forward is the right thing to do: the bygones are useful, but they’re useful for showing where not to misstep next time, not to erect even more barriers. (And that holds even if Quebec becomes independent, because there will be no Quebec equivalent of 1922.) I hope I didn’t come across as lecturing you on it. And while the A in AFG does still stand for something, which is presumably why he posted this in the first place (see last sentence of original), he also acknowledges that there is movement forward (see second and third last of original).

    The semiotics of AFG. As if I didn’t have enough distractions in my life already… :-)

    Nick Nicholas

    July 31, 2009 at 12:16 am

  14. “Sudetenblokeland”.

    Ha! Very funny!

    Did you think that up yourself? Best laugh I’ve had today…

    The map is a proposal. If you can think up a better one, I’m all ears…

    Tony Kondaks

    July 31, 2009 at 12:17 am

  15. Acajack:

    Most employment-creation and capital investing is done by small businesses, not multi-national corporations whose international business executives, of whom you speak, would be the ones living in the McMansions.

    Tony Kondaks

    July 31, 2009 at 12:19 am

  16. Acajack—I did in fact mean that Montréal area Anglos have told me that they often have hard time picking up the French spoken in rural Québec, as I do.

    As for me, I can usually make out a mechanic or a store clerk in greater Montréal, but I have encountered people from the north and east (Saguenay river area, I think, in one case) whom I either barely made out or whom I couldn’t understand at all.

    It may also be that Montréal area Francos are more used to dealing with French-speaking Anglos than Francos elsewhere, and that some of them therefore slow down or alter their speech patterns once they detect my accent.


    July 31, 2009 at 6:29 am

  17. If indeed that is that case (that most employment-creation and capital investing is done by small businesses), then this is a type of activity that is essentially locally-generated in most places in the world, and not driven by people coming in from the outside to start up small and medium-sized businesses.

    Even in the parts of Canada where there is unfettered “anglo lebensraum” like Ontario and BC, you don’t see people from Akron, Ohio moving in to set up a Mail Boxes Etc. store.

    I spent most of my life in English-speaking Canada, and you almost never see this: Americans moving in, starting up new small businesses, etc. Sure there was the odd American family showing up in the neighbourhood or their kids at school, but they were almost always there because the father had been transferred to Canada by a large multinational corporation.


    July 31, 2009 at 7:58 am

  18. Thanks for clarifying that.

    Maybe it’s because I am native French speaker and that my ear is very trained that I don’t notice the differences so much.

    Also, it is true that cities everywhere tend to have higher education levels than rural areas, plus Montreal has more “international” francophones (people from France, Belgium, Switzerland, francophone Africa, Lebanon, etc.) than anywhere else in Quebec, and these people tend to speak more what you would call textbook French.

    That said, I still think that there are quite a few anglos in Montreal (because I’ve known quite a few of them) who say they learned “textbook French” but always insist on speaking English with francophone strangers in Quebec because they say that their speech is incomprehensible.

    I don’t buy that. I don’t buy that my French is incomprehensible because of my accent, or that Jean Charest’s is, or that AFG’s is.


    July 31, 2009 at 8:28 am

  19. Edward

    “What are you trying to propose here? Though I support one unified school system based in French, the notion that the school would be unable to communicate in English is absurd. Adopting a single system doesn’t mean abandoning English, but only that French would be the dominant language of instruction.”

    If the school cannont speak English or insists on continuing the conversation in French, it is the school’s right and the parent cannot continue to insist that the school speak to them in English even informally.

    “That is rich coming from a paranoid Francophone who believes his own language and culture aren’t strong enough to survive a bilingual society.”

    It isn’t because English is more dominant than French in this continent and globally. A bilingual society in Quebec (where the languages are English and French) would eventually lead to anglicization of Quebec expecially if it contimues to receive immigrants from around the world and does relations with the world. Quebec must be institutionallly unilingual French for French to be strong here. Anglophones can learn French but still keep their own language and culture just fine in an French society in Quebec.

    BTW, I am not francophone but anglophone in the sense that English is the first language I learned.


    July 31, 2009 at 11:05 am

  20. Antonio,

    “Please, that is ridiculous. Francophones do not have caustic reaction every time they hear English spoken.”

    I’m talking about individual francophones reaction to hearing some English, but the kind of wide-scale mixing of languages that I believe you yourself feels would threaten French.

    My little analogy about the language of commerce in Monteal was meant to illustrate that, where English and French do intermingle on a large scale, people feel less secure about the status of French, as is the case at present as far as language of commercial service in Montreal goes.

    I’m just wondering if people would feel the same about integrating two groups of merchants, knowing as we do that it would cause French to be perceived as threatened in Montreal’s service sector. Or, would they say that it is better to keep the (hypothetical) segregated commercial system so as to ensure the protection of French? I think that your answer to that question should inform your feelings on the school question.

    “This is moot anyway because English will not be competing schools because the language of instruction everywhere will be in French only”

    I think you are underestimating the importance of the language spoken outside the classroom, at recess, in the hallways, on sports teams etc. That is where kids are going to socialize. Speaking to their French teacher in French has as much of an impact on a kid’s likelihood of growing up and adopting French as a common language (which I believe is what you’d like to see) as working out a math problem with your math teacher has on a kid’s future employment as an engineer.

    A significant increase in the influence of English as the language of socializing would set back the efforts of the Quebecois to integrate allophones more than 30 years. In exchange, anglophones would be a little more confortable with French. Is it worth the trade-off? I guess that is worth discussing.


    July 31, 2009 at 12:50 pm

  21. No, I don’t buy it either.

    I took what you said as the equivalent of suggesting that a francophone who were to take a trip to Boston or Long Island and have trouble understanding the odd phrase would be totally ignorant towards English. I see now you’re talking about people who are just making up lame excuses and not someone who is perfectly happy speaking French but has a small amount of trouble when they are out of their “element”.


    July 31, 2009 at 1:04 pm

  22. Oui, comme en Afrique du Sud.


    July 31, 2009 at 9:16 pm

  23. Their last stand was the partitionist movement, which died a quick death; some still publish their hatred in the Chronicle and the Suburban.
    And on AFG, too, judging from many comments here

    Jean Naimard

    July 31, 2009 at 10:10 pm

  24. When a constituent of a federation departs, it is **NOT** partition.

    Jean Naimard

    July 31, 2009 at 10:12 pm

  25. Why don’t you finally admit that all you want is to go back 40 years when french was getting flattenned by english???

    Jean Naimard

    July 31, 2009 at 10:14 pm

  26. Color me surprised. (NOT!)

    Jean Naimard

    July 31, 2009 at 10:19 pm

  27. Dialog isn’t about being identical. It’s about trying to understand one another.

    Indeed. However, some cultures are totally unable to understand others; the anglo-saxon, the most imperialist people in History have been driven by their colonial (and marketing) success to view themselves as the Superior Race™, and thus do not see any reason to demean themselves by lowering themselves by understanding primitive cultures.

    Jean Naimard

    July 31, 2009 at 10:21 pm

  28. And no human rights are being violated. (You are welcome to post examples of violations).

    Jean Naimard

    July 31, 2009 at 10:23 pm

  29. 1) It is not that two systems is apartheid; it is that one group of Quebecers is denied access to one of the two systems and the other has access to both…

    And you so happen to have access to both yourself. Why are you bitching? Because those who would wreck the french culture in Québec cannot???

    Jean Naimard

    July 31, 2009 at 10:26 pm

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