Like a lot of Montreal journalists, whenever there was an incident involving racism here, I used to get a call from Bobby White. In defiance of his name, White is one of the city’s more colourful characters, having run the West End Sports Association in Little Burgundy for 28 years.
White would often begin his calls by asking what you thought of Montreal’s black community leadership. “Hah!” he’d shout if anyone took the bait. “There is no black community. There are only black communities.”
He was right, of course. Montreal is awash in black communities, uniting people around race, religion, ethnicity, country of ancestry or origin, local geography, sports interests… you get the idea. His point, I quickly gathered, was that no one could claim to be talking on behalf of the black community because it simply didn’t exist. People could talk for themselves, or maybe even for larger groups of people who elected them to do just that, but not for anyone else.
I was reminded of that last week when an opinion piece in the Gazette triggered a debate in both French- and English-language media about the need for someone to speak on behalf of the blokes. Jonathan Lang, a Master’s student in political science at the Université de Montréal, wrote that it was all well and good that our glorious leaders in Ottawa and at city hall denounced the violence that took place on election night, but lamented: “Absent, however, has been a powerful political voice from the Quebec anglophone community.”
My first reaction was confusion. Should we also be looking for people to speak on behalf of the elderly, the vision-impaired, the strangely attired, the balding, the weight-challenged, fishing camp owners and chief of the Clan Bain? Do we really need an association for anglophones to tell everyone that we were as sickened by the violence at Metropolis as everyone else?
But even if there was such a beast, why would we want The Voice?
It would speak, like us, in a babble of tongues. It would want Bill 101 eliminated and strengthened, or something in between. It would want everyone and no one to send their children to French or English schools, in immersion but preferably not. It would insist on speaking French in private but never in public, and it would prefer baguettes over French bread but refuse to eat either.
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WHY CAN’T EVERYONE GET ALONG? (Illustration by James Bouthillier)
The anglophone community does not exist. The proof of that became clear in the birth and death of an organization called Alliance Quebec. Formed in 1982 as an initiative of existing community groups, it began as a force for moderation after the Parti Québécois’ re-election the year before. As such, it lobbied, fought court battles and acted as the generally accepted spokesgroup for anglophones, all the while agreeing with the principle that the French language needed protection and promotion.
Which earned it the nickname, in some circles, of Compliance Quebec. But that didn’t stop it from being demonized in French-language media as well, with the Journal de Montréal in 1988 going so far as to falsely accuse AQ’s then-president Royal Orr, a respected broadcaster, of setting fire to the association’s office.
The conciliation era gave way to a decade of infighting, driving away a lot of the original founders and making way for the new wave of “angryphones,” who preferred confrontation over dialogue. Led in 1998 by Gazette columnist William Johnson and helped by firebrand talk show host Howard Galganov, AQ targeted Eaton stores and other businesses for the lack of English signs. This appealed greatly to an older, more bitter anglo demographic and, short term, brought it plenty of notoriety. By 2005, it was so unrepresentative that when the federal government pulled the plug on AQ financing, most anglophones likely breathed a sigh of relief.
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Quebec anglophones are not a community — we are part of many communities. They include our francophone spouses, colleagues and neighbours just as they embrace our Arabic-speaking friends, Hellenic bosses and Hispanic teammates. The same is true of most urban Quebec francophones.
If you need convincing, read Le Devoir’s snapshots of six different anglophone Quebecers and their views on the issues before and after the PQ election.
We are no longer one of Two Solitudes. We are connected to the world and to our neighbours by ties that traverse the globe in thousands of languages and connect millions of cultures.
Our concept of leadership has to change with the new reality. To see ourselves as linguistic victims in need of advocates or as a voiceless minority powerless to promote change is so 1976.
The leadership “we” need is thankfully already in place. It’s called freedom of expression, where everyone can have her say. I see it every day on Facebook and Twitter and, agree or not with the opinions expressed, it’s a hell of a lot more representative than a new crop of self-appointed leaders. ■
Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear at least once a week in this space. You can follow him on Twitter or find out about his upcoming stand-up performances here.