Montreal II: The Quiet Relinguification

By: | Post date: July 12, 2009 | Comments: 2 Comments
Posted in categories: Countries

It’s now close to 4 PM, and I’m in a brasserie next to Notre Dame, about to start my third walking tour of Montreal for the day, following the prescriptions of the Lonely Planet guide. I like this town. I’ve barely spoken to anyone; and le switch that the local francos make to English, when they work out that you’re (a) not a franco-quebecqois, and (b) not an anglo-quebecquois, means that I may not get much of a sense of the town.

I hadn’t realised last night that the cab driver sticking to French despite my obvious discomfort was exceptional by local norms. That he was African may explain that he had different norms on le switch. The other unrepentant refusal to do le switch was from the guy tasked with searching bags at the entrance to the Jazz Festival, who I’d ignored.

ME: … Urk?
GUY TASKED WITH SEARCHING BAGS: Arglé barglé tabarnac your bag câlisse!
[No, I don’t think he was actually swearing. But the whole quebecqois sacreligious swearing thing is funny, and I’ll come back to it.]
ME: [opens bag] I am having the portable computer, and the…
GUY TASKED WITH SEARCHING BAGS: Euh bien, allez. [Waves arm to shoo me away. Or to indicate that lots of nations are taking part in the fireworks competition, I haven’t worked out the subtleties yet.]
ME: [goes] *So he didn’t get to see my guide book. Probably just as well*

But walking around Montreal is leaving me with good vibes. Enough that there are dozens of photos, which will have quite a lag being annotated and posted here. There’s at least four different towns in the 4km I’ve walked so far, and I’ve loved three of them. (The edgy hip street keepin’ it real bit left me cold.) The surprise to me in walking was, how I reacted to the language conflict in the public face of Montreal—and that it wasn’t the response I expected.

I react harshly to separatism. Harshly enough to surprise me. I’m not going to justify it, but there it is. I think it’s an ingrained reaction from my Greek schooling, Greece having learned at the feet of France to suppress expressions of minority identity. So I growl when Catalonia gets its own .cat Internet suffix, because they don’t want to be in .es (while Asturias just buys .as domains off American Samoa.) I snarl when Montenegro want to have their own Wikipedia, before they’ve even formally defined their own language. (And I’m not more charitable about the fact that The Language Formerly Known As Serbo-Croat is now going to be four languages, and not just three.) And it always gives me material to grouse about when in Belgium, since clearly noone there has any investment in a centralist notion of Belgicity. It would have been fitting if I could turn this French-inspired centralism, and applied it against French Canada. Boorish and superficial, true, but fitting.

I was all prepared for my centralist reaction, and may have it yet in the ten days I’m in town. I’d been prepped up about it by my contacts with Anglo-Canada in the ’90s, when Quebec looked like seceding. I had two British Columbians, who I knew to be sober and sensible folk, independently assert to me in ’99 that the country was heading for civil war. I’d seen the polls that Franco-Quebeckers would vote for the premier a woman, an immigrant, someone gay—anhyone before they’d vote for an anglo. I’d had the centralist visceral reaction already, when I read the accusations in Wikipedia that the current governor general of Canada had toasted Free Quebec. I’d rolled my eyes at the Quebecqois Language Police, getting out their measuring tapes to make sure the French signage on shops was always larger than the non-French signage—and the kerfuffle when the fines for non-French signage started including Hebrew. And I’d been regaled with third hand tales of the resentment Anglo-Canadians had over the enforced bilingualism, however far away they were in Canada from Francophonie:

ANGLO-CANADIAN FRIEND OF FRIEND OF FRIEND, IN AUSTRALIA: [drunk] [picks up packet of chips] You know… what I like mosht about thish packet of chips?
ANGLO-CANADIAN FRIEND OF FRIEND OF FRIEND, IN AUSTRALIA: [drunk] … There’sh no fucking French on it.

And yet, I’m not having my centralist reaction at all. It’s partly because I’m too out of it and alien to pick up on the signals of language conflict; so much so, the language-agnostic bonjourhello that service staff use here (because you can’t be too careful) is something I find amusing, not dysfunctional.

But partly, I suspect, I’m not having my centralist reaction becuase it’s no longer all that dysfunctional. The Language Police and their measuring tapes have won. The Anglo-Canadians who did not flee after the referendum have made their peace with the fact they’re no longer running Montreal. They accept French as the default public language (at least, so the guidebook says), and in a generation or so, they may even switch to French completely—like the Flemings of Brussels did, and indeed like the Irish of Montreal did before them. The city gives off the confident assurance of being majority French: it’s not yelling it’s French, it’s not trying to prove it with fisticuffs that I could notice. I didn’t get the immediate sense it felt threatened as much as it used to by the Anglicity outside Quebec.

I don’t know how accurate that impression is at all, and the No Dogs Or Anglophones blog suggests there’s a lot more to the anglos’ side of the story. It’s been a long time since the FLQ was murdering people, and a shorter time since the 1995 referendum on independence; but I’ll stick with that impression for now.

What is striking walking around the city, is that it clearly was not always so. The money and power in Montreal 50 and 150 years ago was Anglo, and did not let you forget it. Montreal was a loyal British town (or at least that was the narrative the public face of Montreal pushed out): there were statues of Queen Victoria, and statues of Robbie Burns, and British Lions, and lots of unchallenged English signage. And there were lots of streetnames that would not look out of place anywhere in the Empire—especially around the Golden Square Mile, where I’m staying. The cross-streets of West Sherbrooke St: Union, University, Mansfield, Metcalfe, Peel, Stanley, Drummond, Bishop, Mackay. There’s a Drummond St three streets up from Melbourne Uni; there’s a rue Drummond here.

But there isn’t a Drummond St here. In fact, the Language Police have won so thoroughly here, that the British street names look now like antiquated, unthreatening markers of a remote and irrelevant past. Like the Amerindian names of New England, or the occasional indigenous place names in Melbourne. Maybe even like the prehellenic names of Greece. “Corinth was not originally a Greek name? You don’t say. Well, I don’t see any Pelasgians claiming ownership of it now, do you?”

Just as I’m not seeing anyone saying West Sherbrooke St, instead of Rue Sherbrooke Ouest. The only witness left that the Language Police haven’t seen to is a ’30s apartment building on the Golden Square Mile, whose owners had the English street name carved in as a monument for the ages, in the ages before the Quiet Revolution.

And the only evidence for East Sherbrooke St (which was not as Anglo) is this street sign—inexplicably not replaced like all the others.

“Street” has been whitewashed away on this sign, but “E.” is still placed where French will not place it.

I’m sure neither the Canada at War image I’d painted in my mind is accurate, nor the Montreal At Peace image is. I’m sure there’s a lot more conflict in bonjourhello than I’m picking up. But it’s time to go on walking tour #3 now, and take in the statuary of Notre Dame.

(Oh, and there’s a lot of delightful Frenchness about the town, but the coffee is still North American crap.)


  • Claude says:

    Well…When I grew up in Montréal, before La Révolutioon Tranquille, there were large sections of the town where I couldn't visit, dine, shop, be sick in some hospitals, unless I would speak decent English. And I didn't! That's why we became Maîtres, Chez Nous! Who can blame us? There would have been no Canada, if the French colonists had refused to join Upper Canada, and form a country. We demanded and obtained two official languages. The least the country can do is to use French where the French are!

  • John Cowan says:

    Of course it's North American crap; this is North America, and we cherish our crap coffee, even as we cherish our refusal to use crap as an adjective, except when being ironic, and all.

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