WARNING! It’s only fair! This post contains a small sample of something I rarely share (especially in a public space like this), that being some of my political views on the province of Québec. However, I can happily say that there will be no blaming or finger-pointing, nor whining or complaining for the next couple thousand words or so! Although I will write this post in English (which is still, by a healthy margin, my strongest language…for now), I hope that this piece reaches the curious and open-minded Francophone or Allophone. In a way, I despise those terms (Anglophone too!): while they serve a purpose in defining one’s native language, they have inherently created a needless division among a population of people that is still searching for some form of social peace.
Before I go any further, I ask that you watch the following interview that took place a few weeks ago on Québec’s widely-watched Sunday evening talk show, « Tout le monde en parle. » It features British singer James Blunt, who is interviewed in French by the show’s host, Guy A. Lepage, and without question it puts into perfect context what you are about to read. Subtitled in French when necessary (Blunt speaks English 95% of the time), it is an excellent show for all! I hope to see you back here in 15 minutes time!
A day after the interview, Guy A. Lepage had this to say and show through Twitter.
Ok, so if you’re still with me, we’ll continue onward as I hope to give an insightful take as to what is going on here in La Belle Province! I want to start by giving you a little more background information about myself so you can further understand where I’m coming from.
Fact: I am a born-and-bred Anglophone, raised in two predominantly English-speaking provinces (Ontario and BC), from a family of…you guessed it…lots of other Anglophones. In fact, as far as I can tell, there hasn’t been one single French native speaker among my ancestors…maybe in the entire history of my family’s lineage!
Fact: I moved to Montréal in 2006, and studied in the English bubble of McGill University for the better part of six years. During that time, I spoke essentially no French at all.
Fact: Since I left McGill and ventured into the vast French-dominated world of Québec, I have learned not only of the importance of the French language but have been inspired by it and the many native speakers here in this province. Some of these native speakers have become my closest friends. My closest friends are some of the biggest reasons I have for living here.
Québec is about to enter a pretty critical stretch of political activity with a provincial election (called earlier this morning!) around the corner that may have massive ramifications on the future of this intriguing place. The build-up toward what may be a huge renaissance for the potential-future-majority Parti Québecois has brought out some pretty strong points of view. Some of these opinions greatly pique my curiosity, and when I am curious, I ask questions!
In the last couple of weeks, Diane de Courcy, Québec’s Minister of Immigration and Cultural Communities, has stated that a majority PQ government would work to reduce the prevalence of public French-English bilingualism in what is probably the world capital of this phenomenon, Montréal.
That has been responded to in an interesting letter by Peggy Curran in the Montréal Gazette, claiming that Montréal is a city of many informally spoken languages, and that bilingualism should not be viewed as a threat to the future of the French language here in Québec.
In turn, that letter has been responded to in another Gazette article by Serge Lamarre, who stated that because of the presence of a Francophone majority in the province (the only place in North America where this is the case), the dominant language of communication should be French.
Well, here’s my take on that train of thought: BOTH authors are correct! “Why are we arguing,” becomes the next logical question…
Canada has always been a country of many diverse and different backgrounds. What started off as the home of First Nations peoples and hundreds of thousands of immigrants who arrived from Europe has evolved into a beautiful and wildly colourful tapestry made up of a multitude of different races, cultures, ethnicities and beliefs. Together, the leftovers of many other world societies have come together to build a nation that rightfully stands in great esteem in the eyes of many citizens around the globe. Our spirit of cooperation precedes the birth of our country and has been an incredible source of strength and growth for over 250 years. Not bad for a bunch of outcasts…
(Side story: my own great-grandfather was cast off from the bulk his British house after he claimed a young Chinese woman as his bride while on a tour of military duty. He found refuge in Toronto, where my grandfather and father were both born. Her name, along with her famous curry powder recipe, has been passed down to others in my family and will almost certainly continue have a place in our hearts for generations to come).
The province of Québec has always been particularly unique. It is comprised of the largest population of French speakers on the North American continent, who also happen to be the most “Americanized” Francophones on the planet. It is also made up of indigenous peoples, long-standing families of English speakers mostly from Great Britain, and relative newcomers to the Canadian scene in the form of more recent immigrants from all over the world. Any way you look at it, we are a people of many people, a culture of many cultures. All of this leaves me wondering why we struggle to get along sometimes.
I can understand the existence of Bill 101, Québec’s Charter of the Official Language, which was passed in the late 1970s and legally made French the official language of the province. I understand what it’s like to grow up in a world where almost everyone either speaks the language of the majority or is working toward doing so. That’s the world I grew up in…the language of the majority was English, but the concept was still the same. Deep down, I was intimidated by people who spoke other languages which I could not understand, and attending high school in the melting pot that is North Vancouver I experienced this feeling on a daily basis. I truly was a very sheltered person linguistically while growing up. Oh how things have changed.
Since leaving the confines of McGill, I have experienced many strong emotions with regard to the linguistic environment of Québec, starting with panic (“how will I ever find a job”), then embarrassment (“I’m sorry, I only speak English”), to frustration (“why can’t I learn this f***ing language!!”) to the feelings I have today – admiration, love, support, and inspiration.
Let me diverge for a moment. Many people who know me are aware that I have started coaching football in a place called Trois-Rivières, a place that is about as French as a plate of fine cheese served with wine and a baguette. As a native English speaker in Trois-Rivières, I’m similar to a Bengal tiger – an endangered species. Goodbye comfortable English world, salut les Québecois! The only Anglo on the staff, and only the second one in the entire organization, I am an exotic flavour for the first time in my life. I’m also incredibly excited to be there, and have experienced nothing but warmth and friendliness from my new colleagues and student-athletes. While this may seem logical and reasonable (I am, after all, learning THEIR language of choice!), it should noted that this is not the first time that I’ve experienced this outstanding degree of respect from Francophones.
Do you remember when I said that some of my best friends are French speakers? I should have added that they have been my friends for many years despite my hesitance toward learning the language of Molière. Never have they pressured me into speaking or learning French, they have simply been far too kind in working to my strengths (while I covered up my weaknesses). What amazing friends I have, and what amazingly cooperative people they are! What could I ever do to repay them for their kindness?
The moment I stopped feeling obliged to learn French (for fear of never being able to find work or establish a solid coaching career in a land where football is a pretty glorious sport) and started to feel inspired to learn French (out of respect for the amazing people I have met and worked with over the better part of the last decade, and out of anticipation of meeting new and amazing friends in the future), everything changed for me. The French language has ceased to put a serious burden on my mind (I will confess is was difficult at first – learning a language is not a simple or easy process). The support I have received in pursuing a bilingual existence is unparalleled – never have I felt like more people are behind me on something in my life.
Let me restate something: positive inspiration defeated negative obligation and has forever changed my life. Point finale!
I know that my future in coaching (and personal economic prosperity) depends on my ability to be the best communicator, teacher, recruiter and motivator that I possibly can be. The fastest way to mutual respect is to speak the language of the stranger you have just met. To find common ground and a common perspective is the make-or-break facet of building relationships. James Blunt’s interview captured this idea perfectly when he said, “we are all one and the same, we human beings.” Priceless.
The French language is an amazing thing. The official language of 29 countries, with considerably more non-native speakers than native, it is projected to be spoken by up to a billion people worldwide by the year 2060. Many of the eight million people here in Québec are afraid that the domestic French language will be swallowed up by a giant whale of North American English speakers…with facts like the ones above on the language’s side, I truly don’t think Moby Dick will be making an appearance any time soon. In my eyes, French will continue to stand the test of time.
Although I don’t know which (if any) political party will bring it to the table, but I believe what is needed most for this province is a change in perspective. There is nothing wrong with a French province in a mostly English-dominated country, there really isn’t. Both sides of the coin have much to learn from and about each other in my view. I know that if a French speaker entered my family’s house, I would go the distance to make sure they felt welcome and as comfortable as possible. That is the way I have been treated here in Québec by virtually everyone I’ve ever encountered, and I don’t need to write a PhD thesis to explain why it is fair and decent to return the favour. Most reasonable people live their lives based on common sense, not bureaucratic garbage or nauseating academic discussion.
Instead of the protectionist nature with which the language is guarded, why not reach out to others from coast-to-coast in welcoming new students of the language, in an attempt to actually grow the influence of the language? There are surely more people in the world like me (I’m not THAT unique!). Simple logic would say that something that is growing cannot suddenly cease to exist, and with the warmth and charm of the people that the culture has to offer, why would someone refuse the chance to expand their horizons and meet new and amazing people? French is spoken in significant pockets all over the country – why is Québec not working more in collaboration with the populations of Francophones that are already in plain sight? What if the province and the federal government actually cooperated on something (perhaps an inter-provincial language exchange for secondary students?) that would clearly benefit both sides? Could it be of benefit to the province economically if the government worked with large international firms to actually assist them (through liaison agents who are knowledgeable of provincial policy) in integrating their businesses into a potentially lucrative Québec market? Poorer than other provinces or not, we are still a first-world society, currently dealing with what could be described by bilingual Twittermaniacs as an “ostie de first world problème.” It is not too late to reverse our fortunes.
As you can see, there are more questions than answers, but one thing is for certain – we are facing a time of great change and great challenge in this province. To close with Blunt’s words, we are connected by our strengths, weaknesses, hopes and fears. Our collective resiliency is based on all of these entities. Necessity is the mother of all invention, and I invite you to step outside the box with me in bringing new ideas and perspectives to the table.
And while you start thinking, I have a new punt formation to draw up! A la prochaine!