This is Quebec’s real language war

If the province is really in the midst of a language battle, where are all the soldiers?

When the first Parti Québécois government was elected in 1976, the previous census showed that only 37 per cent of Quebec’s anglophones were able to have a conversation in French. These days, it’s close to 70 per cent.

We’ve come a long way, bébé.

Part of the improvement, frankly, came from the departure of anglos who weren’t interested in bilingualism if it meant they would have to learn a second language. The “anglo exodus” of the 1980s put a pretty big dent in the population, which was only partially offset by the arrival of anglos from elsewhere. Strangely, many of the new arrivals actually wanted to speak French and thought this might be a good place to learn it.

Quebec’s francophones, meanwhile, were also increasing their bilingualism, though at a much slower pace. Quebec, in fact, is the only place in Canada where ability to converse in both English and French increased between the 2006 and 2011 census, going from 40.2 per cent of the population to 42.6 per cent (up from 27.6 per cent in 1971). Obviously, bilingualism is low in areas like Thetford Mines, where “only” about one in five speak English, but is booming in Montreal, where 54 per cent speak both languages.

Still, that’s close to half the population that can’t communicate with the other half. There must be a lot of conflicts, eh? After all, there are millions of exchanges every day between people who can’t speak each other’s language.

* * *

I was walking down St-Laurent one day when I saw a car nosing out from a side street into traffic. The manoeuvre forced a pedestrian to walk a few feet out into the road (or he could have waited, but this is Montreal, after all). In retaliation, the pedestrian slapped the hood of the car as he walked by. The angry driver jumped out of the car and started swearing at the hood-banger with a vocabulary that would make a Catholic priest blush (and we all know how hard that is).

The banger responded in kind, but with a pronounced English accent, telling the driver that “les pedestrians ont le droit de passage.”

The driver paused a second, then switched his tirade to accented English, which seemed to make the pedestrian even angrier. “Je parle français!” he shouted back.

Bienvenue à Montréal, I thought.

* * *

Nearly 20 years ago, I conducted an experiment with a francophone colleague, Jean-Hugues Roy, then of Voir. We went into heavily French-speaking areas of Montreal (Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Pie-IX and Sherbrooke, Pointe-aux-Trembles, Anjou and Montréal-Est) and pretended we couldn’t speak any French. We then proceeded to stop people randomly and ask questions, in English. On Pie-IX, for example, we asked for Peanut Street, figuring that’s how an anglo might interpret the French pronunciation of Pee-Neuf. We got a few polite “sorry, I don’t speak English,” responses, but on the third try, the guy followed that up by stopping other passersby, asking in French if they spoke English and could help us. Pretty soon a small gathering of locals had solved our little Peanut riddle and informed us that the Olympic “Staid” was the big building up the street.

The positive experience was repeated wherever we went, whether shopping at Galeries d’Anjou or eating at a casse-croute in P-A-T. Finishing off the day at Brasserie JP/Serveuses Sexy near the East End oil refineries, we finally had our first confrontation after about half an hour of chatting with the locals in broken Frenglish. Seeing a guy slam his pool cue on the table in disgust after missing a shot, I put money in the coin slot and reset the table for my turn. Unfortunately, the game wasn’t over. The guy who’d missed was now the guy who was pissed, and he called me a few choice names, including callise de bloke.

It was late in the day at a cheap bar where working-class types had probably been drinking since the end of their shifts. If a woman had done what I’d done, cue-boy would probably be calling her a pute (but might not be threatening a fight). Anyway, a profuse apology and a fresh quart of beer solved the problem and halted our only chicane linguistique of the day.

* * *

Despite attempts by both sides of the language debate to take isolated little vignettes and try to turn them into causes célèbres, the fact is that these fights are the exceptions that prove the rule. Quebecers of all linguistic stripes peacefully interact with each other in every way possible every day. We work, play and quarrel together; we yell, flirt and laugh ensemble. When the Office québécois de la langue française tried to fine an Italian restaurant for using the Italian word pasta on a menu, we became outraged together — even the government was forced to concede the agency had exhibited an “excessive zeal.”

Hell, in 1995 we even went through one of the most emotional, gut-wrenching referendums in the history of modern democracy together. And when we found out that the sovereignty option had failed by less than 1.2 per cent, we returned peacefully to our homes, our offices and our schools without a single incident of violence.

Unfortunately, it’s easier to remember the occasional street fight than it is to remember seven million people working together despite some fundamental political differences.

Je me souviens.

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear every second Tuesday in this space. Follow him on Twitter, or find out about his upcoming stand-up performances here.

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