Waves of change in Quebec: A story beyond language

Waves of change in Quebec

In today’s media landscape there is 24/7 news coverage of each new “wave” of Covid. Talking heads on TV and Zoom parse the difference between the Delta and Omicron variants. There’s no lack of discussion either, around the dinner table or on social media about the pandemic, the viability of our healthcare system, and the effects of lockdown on mental health, the economy, and in-person learning for kids. While tourist brochures may conjure up idyllic images of happy sun seekers dipping their toes in breaking waves at holiday resorts, travel restrictions these days are making it more difficult to get away.

Other developments in Quebec are also making waves. Bill 96, the CAQ Government’s new language law has sent shock waves through the English-speaking community. As proposed, it would cap enrolment in English CEGEP’s, compromises English services in the courts, call into question the bilingual status of municipalities, extend the French certification process for businesses, and narrow the definition of a “historic” Anglophone – all particularly worrisome for Allophones who identify as English-speakers, but whose mother tongue isn’t English. 

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The latest flag-waving in Quebec concerns religious symbols. Bill 21, Quebec’s secularism law bans government employees in positions of authority such as teachers, police officers and judges from wearing symbols of their faith at work be it a hijab, kippah, turban, crucifix, or cross jewelry. Recently, things got personal when Fatemeh Anvari, a Grade 3 teacher at Chelsea Elementary School in Gatineau was removed from her classroom for wearing a hijab. Premier Legault said that she never should have been hired in the first place. The public humiliation of this beloved teacher has left many Muslim women feeling targeted. 

But, while all this political turmoil is playing out, many Anglo-Quebecers are quietly navigating the waves of change swirling around them as they map out their own distinctive identities, pursue an education, and build a career in an often fraught environment. This is the subject of Waves of Change: a story beyond language, a documentary project created by the English-speaking cultural organization ELAN. In 2018, the recently created Secretariat for Relations with English-Speaking Quebecers consulted its constituency and found – to no one’s surprise – that English-speakers do not have a strong sense of identity or belonging in Quebec. A second consultation followed and the Secretariat decided to fund a number of community groups to create projects to address these concerns. 

ELAN interviewed a wide variety of people to create an “oral history” of Quebec’s English-speaking communities, weaving together themes of immigration, bilingualism, and multiculturalism. Fifty-four participants were selected and asked, “How do you feel about your place in Quebec?” Their answers are as unique as these individuals themselves. Together, their stories create a compelling portrait of a vibrant, evolving, and diverse English-speaking community of communities. The three-year project which was recently launched involves a six-part series for YouTube and, MAtv with additional commentary; a documentary special to be aired on the CBC; and a feature length film. The project traces successive waves of immigration to Quebec viewed through the lens of individuals whose families came here before 1945 and onward. According to producer Guy Rex Rodgers, it’s all about sparking a “conversation” among the Anglo-population. “There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be examined,” he says. 

With another provincial election looming on the horizon and the popularity of François Legault and the CAQ Government declining because of its handling of the pandemic, people may wonder how long effective bilingualism will last in Montreal. The concerns of the English-speaking minority are always last on the list of Quebec’s priorities and les Anglais et les autres are easily scapegoated. The premier says only that customers will have a right to be served in French, but it won’t be illegal for a store employee to greet a customer by saying, “Bonjour-Hi!”

For Waves of Change participant Karan Singh, the whole issue of bilingualism is a non-starter. Like many Millennials who now call Quebec their home, Singh came from India to study here. “Like many middle-class South Asians, once we’re done with school, we start looking for educational opportunities abroad,” he says. Singh started looking at the UK, US, and then Canada to see what immigration programs were available. “I actually came here to go to McGill,” he says. The fact that it was a bilingual country was a bonus. Not knowing much about the details of Canada’s history or the two referendums, he was in for a surprise. He confesses that upon arrival he had just a cursory knowledge. “I was super ignorant.” He thought, “How hard could it be for two languages to coexist?” Coming from a country which has more than 20 languages, it wasn’t difficult for him to imagine being bilingual. 

No matter that later waves of immigrants to Quebec arrived speaking neither French nor English.  “Economic immigrants believe in bilingualism,” Rodgers says. “There’s no resistance, no argument.” 

Whether English speakers are born and raised here (Anglophones), or arrive as immigrants (Allophones), they must always be mindful of le fait français. At one time, the “French Fact” denoted the common ancestry, language, and religion of French Canadians in Quebec. Their identity and sense of belonging was based on these facts. After Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, many Francophone Quebecers began to think of themselves as Québécois. This represented a shift to a more secular identity and a shared culture and politics based on language and territory. English-speaking Quebecers were no longer connected to French Quebec in the same way as before by religion (Catholic/Judeo-Christian). Many Francophone Québécois no longer considered themselves to be Canadian. 

Montrealer Meir Hersson-Edery came up with his own creative solution to bridge this divide. Like most young Anglophones he went to English school, all the way from his elementary years through CEGEP. When it came time for university, he decided to go to l’Université de Montréal. Despite the fact that his French was good, it still wasn’t his maternal language. Then, there was the other matter. “I’m a kippah-wearing Jew,” he says. And he thought, “Oh my god, I’m gonna get anti-Semitism.” Hersson-Edery was surprised by the response he did get. “I have not heard a single word about me being Jewish, but I have gotten so much abuse for being Anglo.” So, he said to himself, “Let’s try something different.” 

He created the first and possibly only Anglophone students’ organization at a French university in Quebec: le comité des étudiants en anglais en droit de l’Université de Montréal (University of Montreal Law School English Students’ Committee). To be sure, there was pushback and it was disheartening. But there was another more positive response too. There were people who came out and said, “You know what, I’m a Francophone, my grandmother used to tell me how they forced her to speak English at the Eaton Center when they were serving people. That happened, oh boy, that happened, but now it’s different. This is a service that they need. They aren’t being political. We should help integrate Anglophones.” Hersson-Edery sees progress in this more thoughtful approach and is hopeful. “All of those things that we’ve said, they’re slowly changing.” 

It is not only language that divides, but class often creates very different realities. Montrealer Lorraine O’Donnell is proud of her Irish heritage which goes way back. Her family’s story doesn’t conveniently fit the trope trotted out by some Quebec pundits of wealthy Westmount business owners who held back French Quebecers. “There is a very prevalent narrative of the rich Anglo, the Anglo boss,” she says. “There is some truth to that,” she concedes while pointing out that her ancestors were poor and certainly not bosses. She’ll allow though that there were still advantages to being part of the English-speaking community. “They definitely benefited on the English-speaking side from the fact that there were bosses that spoke English and that there were businesses operating in English.” 

Despite these truisms, the Irish aren’t one and the same with the Anglos-Saxons, a distinction lost on some commentators. “In the media, in history books, there’s too often references only to the wealthy elite, the 1% of the English-speakers, as if they represented everyone. I think it is a heavy burden and it has to go,” O”Donnell says. At a grassroots  level, the Irish got along fine with their French neighbours and co-workers. “There’s a long history of very positive interactions between the Irish and what used to be called the French Canadian population,” she says. “Including in the media, there’s a positive understanding of, “Everyone is Irish for a day” on the day of the St. Patrick’s Parade.” 

There can be very different dynamics between the majority and various minorities. “The longer your family has been here, the deeper your relationship,” says Rodgers, whose own roots trace back to Scotland, Ireland, and England. Think English-speaking settler culture like farmers in N.D.G. “So, it’s definitely not all bleak for some of the sub-communities that make up the English-speaking community,” O’Donnell says. 

The linguistic divide isn’t only about different languages. There is French and then there’s French Québécois. A humorous story illustrates this point. Marianne Ackerman, a Canadian author, playwright, and journalist living in Montreal’s trendy Mile End district recalls how this particular element played out in her own personal life: “My daughter was three when we came to Montreal and I put her in a Maison de L’amitié. It was a multilingual, but mainly francophone daycare, and I didn’t even really say much. I just put her in and after about four months I said, “So, how is it going with the French?” And she said, “It’s going okay. I can speak it. I can sing it, but I have trouble understanding it.” So, (Ackerman laughs) she just went into French and then went into FACE on the French side and completely identified as a Francophone.” 

And, so fast-forward to a few years later when Ackerman moved to France. “I was living there for about seven years. She came over to visit one summer. We were sitting in a restaurant in Toulouse and the waiter came over – very locacious – and said something to her and she answered him in this Québécois French. I had never heard her speak French and he’s like, “Ô, la petite Québécoise, c’est mignon!” (Oh, a little Quebecer, how cute!) And I’m like, “Wow, this is amazing!” 

Fitting into Quebec society is also about what you bring to the table. So says Kakim Goh who “fell in love with Montreal” when he first arrived because of the jazz, arts, and cultural scene. “It’s like a family, whether you like each other or not. You’re at the dinner table and things happen there, but if you’re on the outside you can’t sit at the dinner table. So, my policy for the last couple of years is to come uninvited to the dinner  table. You know, to knock on the door, to crash the door down and crash the party, but always make sure that I bring something, right? Like any family or any meal, you’ve got to bring something that you can contribute that you can use to enrich that experience. So, whether they like me or not I would rather be there at the table and hate me to my face or tell me my food stinks so at least by being there I can belong to something in that sense.” 

While he may employ a colourful culinary metaphor to get at the challenge of trying to find one’s place in a new environment, Kakim Goh, whose roots are in Singapore, took pragmatic steps to ensure that his daughter’s integration into Quebec society would be smoother than his own. He and his ex sent their child to an international French school. “She’s been a “lifer” from “maternelle to lycée ,” he says. “In Grade 8 she took one year of intensive English. Now she is more than bilingual, speaking some Italian too!”

The most recent immigrants to Quebec may have an easier time of it. “People who arrived after the second referendum have a stronger sense of belonging,” Rodgers says. “They didn’t go through the referendums. They didn’t have that baggage.” 

Ellie Nash who hails from the U.S.A. knows the feeling well. It’s all about a new and exciting journey for her.  “I’ve been speaking French since I was 13, or studying French, so the idea of living in a bilingual place that was French and English, rather than Spanish and English, was a big draw. The University of Montreal had a program that intersected with international studies and I liked the idea and the challenge of doing my Masters in French. And Montreal had a certain attraction for me, and the province of Quebec.” 

Growing up she knew about Céline Dion. “I thought that she must be representative of something amazing.” The more she learned about Québec, and the more she learned about Montréal, the more she liked it. “Being a metropolis of the francophone world, and feeling that it had ties to all these other places, it could be a springboard to a career in international work,” she says. 

She only learned about Quebec’s turbulent past from her husband by moving here. “In typical American fashion, I was completely ignorant of Quebec’s political history. Luckily, my husband is a great storyteller.” She feels that by marrying into a Québécois and Anglophone family, one which came together during Quebec’s period of political upheaval, she can learn from their experiences and tap into the zeitgeist of Québec. “So, there’s a lot of discussion around the dinner table, or interactions with my husband’s friends, that give me opportunities to understand all the different perspectives,” Nash says. 

What’s the meaning of that history? It’s about, “what we choose to remember,” Rodgers says. It’s also about where we are in Québec. For most English-speaking Quebecers who live in the metropolitan Montréal region, the focus is on Montréal. “We, who live in Montreal, tend to be Montreal-centric,” Rodgers says. However, some English speakers who have roots in other regions are often hard-pressed to obtain the services that Montreal Anglos take for granted. Just the same, English-speaking organizations like ELAN which are located in Montréal advocate for resources for the English-speaking community throughout the province. “Anglo groups have helped foster the development of Anglophones in other regions,” Rodgers says.

Montréal still has a certain cachet for the people who live and work here because of its cultural and creative entrepreneurship despite the fact that it is ground zero for Quebec’s language wars and politics. Many Anglophones and Allophones who may never feel that they fully belong in Québec still feel at home in Montreal. Did Goh get the reception that he wanted when he came uninvited to the grand dinner party of les Québécois? Maybe not, but he sure found his niche à Montréal! “In that sense, I now can say that I really feel like I belong to Montréal and Montreal belongs to me,” he says.  

Debora Rankin
By: Deborah Rankin – [email protected]

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