A reluctant Bill 96 rally in Montreal, the language of love & missed opportunities

“As someone who supports Bill 101 and efforts to protect and promote French, I’m not someone you’d normally see at a rally for English language rights. But these aren’t normal times.”

“For the first time in 20 years, I’m at an anglo demo and I can’t find someone because the crowd is bigger than 20 people.”

The text came in from my friend Peter last Saturday while on my way to Dawson College for a rally coordinated by Quebecers Against Bill 96 — the province’s proposed reform to its French language law. I chuckled. For the largely unradical, fatigued and frustrated, hesitant-to-make-waves majority of English-speakers in Quebec wanting a modicum of linguistic peace and a little bit of recognition and love as being Quebecers, too, and who are suddenly finding themselves at political rallies much to their own chagrin and surprise, that sentence represented the day well.

I, too, felt weird attending an English-rights rally. It’s 2022 and most of Quebec’s English speakers — those who stayed after Bill 101 — have long embraced French. The few stragglers still refusing are such a small fringe group, they barely register in our daily lives. As a trilingual allophone, I’ve long been impatient with angryphones who think any efforts to protect French are an attack on their ability to order a sandwich in the Queen’s English. They’re a small group, but they’re annoying, and they’re just as out of touch as French-language zealots who think unilingualism is a badge of honour and refer to Quebec anglophones as “Rhodesians” and “anglo-supremacists.” In Quebec’s current socioeconomic and linguistic reality, I can’t take either of these groups seriously.

To put it simply, as someone who supports Bill 101 and continued efforts to protect and promote French, I’m not someone you’d normally see at a rally for English language rights.

But these aren’t normal times.

Bill 96 denounced by many Quebecers

Bill 96 rally Montreal
A reluctant Bill 96 rally in Montreal, the language of love & missed opportunities

The CAQ’s Bill 96 is badly conceived, divisive (and, so far, utterly confusing) legislation that stands to reduce and restrict access to education, healthcare, justice and government services in English. The legislation impacts the rights of all Quebecers (including francophones who want to access English CEGEPs) and throws students and teachers under the bus. True to CAQ tradition, they didn’t even bother consulting educators on the changes. They simply told them to figure it out.

The CAQ’s overreach, their wedge politics and constant infringing on minority rights via their repeated use of the notwithstanding clause has forced many Quebecers who wouldn’t normally be found protesting to come out and be counted.

I attended the rally with two friends. Like me, they’re also allophones. Like me, they’re also trilingual. We’re not an oddity, we’re the norm in Montreal. One of my friends is a CEGEP teacher who still doesn’t know how this proposed legislation will affect her ability to do her job — or if she’ll even have a job by the time this is all over.

I never did find Peter. The crowd that gathered on the grounds of Dawson in the middle of a serious heatwave was far larger than any of us expected. Even on a gorgeous summer-like weekend, people came out. The tone was defiant but mild-mannered. For many it was the first opportunity in years to see some familiar faces.

Opposed to Bill 96, not French

Bill 96 rally Montreal
The Bill 96 rally in Montreal on May 14, 2022

A few friends admitted to me in hushed tones they’d secretly worried it might turn out to be an angryphone protest. It wasn’t. Those gathered weren’t against French. Many were French. Anglophones, francophones and allophones were there to protest far-reaching legislation that will infringe on people’s lives in negative ways, while doing little to promote French. A Mohawk community contingent from Kahnawake was also in attendance. Indigenous communities have been highly critical of Bill 96 as it places even more barriers to their children’s success. They see the imposition of this bill as another example of colonization and a lack of respect for their own languages.  

Overall, it was a very Montreal protest. The signs were in English, French and often bilingual. Quebec flags were just as abundant as Canadian flags. The flags of the Iroquois Confederacy representing the six nations were also visible. The signs said it all.

“Is there room for me in Quebec?”

“English is a language, not a crime”

“Hands off my tongue and hands off my rights”

“Pour le droit à la communication libre entre patients et médecins”

“We don’t pay Quebec taxes to have our rights taken away”

“Laissez les élèves choisir”

“Chu pas une Québécoise de 2ieme classe”

“Trouvez-moi un médecin de famille d’abord”

“Où est ma place au Québec?”

Despite the grievances, the tone was light. “Bill Ninety Six? More like Bill Ninety SUX” was displayed on one sign carried by a teen wearing a Montreal Expos hat. A young boy sporting a “No Bill 96” sign had come prepared, wearing both Quebec and Canada baseball hats and alternating between the two depending on his mood.

Tame protest and counterprotest

Occasionally the crowd broke into chant. “Hey, ho! Bill 96 must go!” was heard as we made our way up Ste-Catherine, but that’s about as rowdy as it got. The routine police presence was visible, but between the sweltering sun and the median age of the crowd, there was more chance of multiple heat strokes than a riot breaking out. The cops appeared unconcerned. I saw one of them nonchalantly eating a slice of pizza as we walked by.

Sure, there were some tell-tale signs of that cliché Anglophone gathering harkening back to the olden days (Bowser and Blue were there, CJAD hosts were spotted, there were far too many Tilley hats) but today’s predominantly bilingual English-speaking community is a different beast: proud of its Quebec identity and supportive of Bill 101 — simply refusing that French language protection should come at the expense of their own minority rights.

By the time we reached McGill’s Roddick Gates, a small group of young francophones draped in the Fleurdelisé greeted us singing French songs. Because there were so many Quebec flags in the Bill 96 march, for a few minutes many of us (myself included) were confused as to whether they were part of the protest or a counterprotest. Both groups momentarily just stood there awkwardly staring at each other. They turned out to be the latter and were for the most part politely ignored (although I did see one marcher obnoxiously get in their faces) as most people went to the opposite side of the street to listen to speeches and seek out much-needed shade.

Because this is still glorious, tranquil Quebec, by 1 p.m. everyone had peacefully dispersed and gone on their way and for the next few hours my friends and I kept comically bumping into people from the protest, still wearing “No Bill 96” buttons, shopping at Uniqlo or waiting in line to purchase bubble tea. Not immune to anglophone clichés ourselves, we joked that Fairview Mall had taken a serious hit that day.

Of language and love

Bill 96 rally Montreal
The Bill 96 rally in Montreal on May 14, 2022

That night I went over to a friend’s house for a BBQ. Sitting under a gorgeous starry night in a Saint-Henri backyard, we sipped on wine and, as we often do, took turns playing DJ. I introduced them to Greek singer Nikos Vertis. I tried to translate the lyrics to one of my favourite songs (“An Eisai Ena Asteri”), but quickly realized how basic they sounded in English. You need to understand the language to truly get the poetry. We followed up with some Arabic music, and then somehow ended up listening to ‘60s French chansonnier Serge Regianni and his mega hit “Sarah,” written by Greek songwriter Georges Moustaki.

When it was my friend’s turn to choose the music, she immediately opted for Fred Pellerin’s “La chanson du camioneur” and sang along enthusiastically.

“J’suis dans mon camion 60 heures par semaine, j’t’aime…

“Des fois j’triche un peu, j’fais des heures pour nous deux

“On dormira plus tard, quand on s’ra des bons vieux

“Moi, j’vis juste pour toi, j’ai hâte à fin d’semaine, j’t’aime.”

Pellerin’s song, written by Pierrot Rochette and inspired by a real-life hard-working trucker who dreams of pleasing his wife by upgrading the kitchen’s melamine counter, is one of those beautiful, straight-to-the-heart, simple, blue-collar folk tunes written in Québécois joual that make you immediately fall in love with this place’s soul and heart. Sometimes music is so powerful that you don’t need to understand the lyrics to understand the emotion behind a song. But, most times, it helps if you do.

My friend who loves that song is a born-and-raised Quebec anglophone from the West Island who lives and works in English. That alone would immediately brand her by some as “a hater of the French language, contributing to its decline,” actively working to “assimilate francophones.” A “privileged anglo” who gets far more than francophone minorities in the ROC do, as if Quebec’s English-speakers have anything to do with how francophones are treated elsewhere, and we should be the ones to pay the price.

Walking home later that night, I thought about preconceived notions, about solitudes and about old grievances that never seem to die. I thought about the moderate middle in Quebec that often gets drowned out by extremists on both sides. I thought of what many of us love and what some will never be allowed to fall in love with because obligation and force are rarely conducive to romance.

I mostly thought about missed opportunities. Not only for those who only speak one language but also for those who were made to speak another as if it were a chore, resentment making it so that they’ll never get to roll it around their tongue like fine wine, like lyrics to a love song, like laughter on a hot summer night. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.