Guy Rex Rodgers What We Choose to Remember Montreal Quebec anglos anglo English-speaking

The Quebec anglo: A new documentary portrays a reality far from the “pampered elite” myth

“What We Choose to Remember sheds light on stories that have rarely been heard in public and is a celebration of people whose contributions have been downplayed or ignored. It’s a call to learn about and value each other’s heritage in the hopes of creating a more unified and inclusive Quebec for all.”

Canadian-born, Australian-raised Guy Rex Rodgers arrived in Quebec from Australia in 1980, the year of the first referendum on independence. He was initially just passing through on his way to Berlin but an acceptance letter for Montreal’s National Theatre School of Canada and a chance meeting with his soon-to-be wife, a francophone Québécoise, changed all that. Political tension or not, he decided to stay and has since built a life here as the Executive Director of the English Language Arts Network (ELAN) for the past 20 years. He says, he’s been trying to make sense of his adopted homeland ever since.  

As a fully integrated outsider with a lifelong fascination with social dynamics and why people form ethnic groups and societies — as well as a vested interest in Quebec’s unique socio-political history around language — Rodgers was in a good position to produce a documentary that delves into the thorny issues of identity and belonging in Quebec for the anglo community. It’s a community, Rodgers says, whose contributions have routinely (and perhaps, deliberately) been minimized or ignored. 

“Quebec is the land of ‘Je me souviens’ yet it’s remarkable what its inhabitants do not remember or have chosen to forget,” he says.

Beyond one-dimensional portraits of the anglo community in Quebec

What We Choose to Remember interviews more than 60 English-speaking Quebecers, grouped by four waves of immigration with the oldest wave reaching back as far as the days of the Napoleonic Wars. Their families arrived back when Montreal was 50% English-speaking and who, Rodgers says, “lived through the Quiet Revolution, FLQ bombings, Bill 101, two referendums, an exodus of 300,000 Quebecers and a significantly renegotiated social contract.” 

The documentary also features interviews with more recently arrived English-speaking Quebecers, including allophones, as well as English-speaking Quebecers who’ve long resided in regional communities like Baie Comeau, the Magdalen Islands and Abitibi, dispelling the myth that English-speaking Quebecers can only be found on the island of Montreal. 

“I felt it was time to reassess where we are and where we’re going,” he says.

Rodgers wanted to know how they felt about living here, how they defined themselves and what their sense of identity was. In the process he speaks with English-speaking Quebecers with centuries’ old roots here, those with families belonging to the 99% working-class English-speakers who spoke French with their farmer neighbours because they needed it to survive — not the 1% pampered anglo elite always cited by nationalists as representing the entire community. He speaks with non-Catholic immigrants whose families were denied access to French schools in the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s because of the Catholic Church but were accepted by the Protestant English school boards. Their answers are as diverse as their experiences. English-speaking Quebecers are not a monolith.

An “alternative narrative” needs to be told

He speaks with those who take pride in their French, even though they remain self-conscious about their accents — those who willingly went to French school to become bilingual and trilingual, and those who define themselves as Quebecers first. He speaks with allophones, who, like writer Dimitri Nasrallah, were often made to “feel like a problem that needs to be solved,” and Quebecers like immigration lawyer Walter Chiyan Tom, who remembers how they had to place security guards around Chinatown after Parizeau’s “money and the ethnic vote” declaration (after the 1995 referendum) because there were concerns about the community’s safety. This, too, is part of Quebec history. 

“The people who stayed here have made a valiant effort to speak French and contribute to Quebec and that needs to be recognized,” says Rodgers. “We’re not just a bunch of old WASPS and it’s time for some of these myths and misconceptions to be laid to rest.” 

The Quebec anglo: A new documentary portrays a reality far from the “pampered elite” myth

Rodgers says an “alternative narrative” to the prevalent one needs to be offered, because politicians and pundits often don’t miss an opportunity to drive a wedge between communities. These are two linguistic communities, he says, that were never as divided or polarized as some make it appear. He points to the large community of anglophones once living in Rosemont and Outremont (once 80% English), the many English families living in Montreal’s East-End refineries, and Quebec’s rural communities. 

As Rodgers says during the documentary, “We all have our personal memories, but our collective memories determine the official story that is written in history books and taught in schools.” 

English-speaking Quebecers beyond Montreal 

Sunita Nigam is one of those Quebecers of diverse origins who does not live in Montreal. Born in Sherbrooke and raised in North Hatley, she recently moved back home to teach literature at Bishop’s University. Her family has been in the Eastern Townships for generations, after her Indian grandfather was recruited to teach at the local university. Her father runs the first (and only) Indian restaurant in North Hatley. 

Nigam, whose mother tongue is English, but was educated in French and is perfectly bilingual, says there is a real lack of understanding of the English community in Quebec. 

“This mythology of what it means to be an English speaker in Quebec needs to be dramatically updated,” she says. Having worked with the Community Health and Social Services Network (CHSSN) to redress health status inequalities, she’s familiar with data she says most Quebecers seem unaware of. “It’s eye-opening, to say the least.”

No longer “privileged”

“Many English speakers in Quebec are geographically removed from essential health services,” says Nigam. “Social and economic exclusion is real, and to be an English speaker is a health determinant. You are more likely to live less long or be poor.” Nigam says mental health services for young English-speaking Quebecers are extremely hard to access. 

It’s certainly a far cry from the image of the “Golden Square Mile” anglo, the “pampered elite” some groups always allude to. 

“We’re not ‘privileged’ anymore,” she says. “Reality and public discourse are very different, yet current government policies are being implemented based on myths, not facts. It’s dismaying because it betrays a real lack of understanding of what it means to be an English speaker in Quebec today.” 

Nigam believes that if francophone Quebecers had a better idea of the current situation, they would be less likely to be afraid of Quebec’s English-speaking community and, in fact, more concerned for it. 

The Jewish law student who almost “anglicized” UdeM

As it stands, the myth of the “maudit Anglais” remains steadfast for some francophones who may have only been taught to see them in one singular way. 

“I’m a kippa-wearing Moroccan Jew,” says Mier Hersson-Edery, who studied in English and Hebrew for most of his life but decided to attend Université de Montréal to study law. While there, he created le comité des étudiants en anglais en droit de l’Université de Montréal (University of Montreal Law School English Students’ Committee) much to the confusion and sometimes outright hostility of some faculty and students concerned that he would “anglicize” a French institution. 

“I was worried I would get so much antisemitism directed at me,” he says, “but I never heard a single word about being Jewish. Instead, I got so much abuse for being anglo.”

For Hersson-Edery, who says he feels more of a Canadian than a Quebecer, it made perfect sense to study in French. “When you practise as a lawyer in Quebec, mastery of French is essential, “he says. “You need to pass the bar and plead your cases in French.” He admits it was initially tough. “There’s nothing like trial by fire. But I can confidently say that I speak French well now, which is something I couldn’t say before.” 

Despite the initial reaction to the committee, he says it’s now an accepted group on campus, with members even helping francophone students brush up on their English to pass mock trials. 

“Some of my best friends are now from this university and my perspective has expanded,” he says. “I have a much better understanding of francophone fears and concerns and at the end of the day, if you’re not learning French, you’re hindering yourself.” 

Hersson-Edery is still, however, concerned by the consequences of Bill 96, the province’s new language law that would cap enrollment in English CEGEPs, compromise English services in the courts or healthcare, and has created needlessly complicated, bureaucratic definitions like “historic” anglophone. 

“I want to build my life here and fight for my place in Quebec,” he says. “There are many strong and realistic ways to protect French without causing needless divisions.”

Linguistic tensions exacerbated by CAQ policies

With the recent introduction of Bill 96 constantly affirming the limits of the rights of English-speaking Quebecers and once again putting the language issue front and centre, the documentary’s release this coming weekend is timely and will resonate strongly with many.

Rodgers has been watching with concern as linguistic tensions have risen with this current paternalistic and nationalist government excelling at divisive rhetoric.

“This ‘divide and conquer’ attitude is not accidental,” he says. “They know what they’re doing.” 

Rodgers feels the CAQ’s cold-blooded bureaucratic approach to problems is counterproductive for social cohesion and worries legislation like Bill 21 has often served as a dog whistle, empowering people who have taken the law as permission to mistreat Muslim minorities. He worries Bill 96 will do the same for allophones and anglophones. 

“Anglos have worked hard to contribute to prosperity in Quebec,” he says. “They are part of the story, or at least should be. They are often made to feel like they are the problem.”

A documentary that will resonate with many

Rodgers sees his documentary as a way of “setting the record straight” for those who think English-speakers don’t care about Quebec or don’t feel connected to their home. He believes the documentary will reach many moderate francophones who will challenge the government’s policies. 

“There’s been a shift from the largely sensible goals of Bill 101 to make French the official language and ensure francophones can work in their language to the current situation that treats allophones and anglophones as a danger or an enemy, and it’s frankly reprehensible,” he says. “People can’t change their mother tongue. And if you look at the statistics, anglophones have mostly fulfilled their part of the social contract to learn French.” 

Since the documentary will be available online, Rodgers hopes it will be viewed by many and eventually find its way into schools and communities, with organized screenings followed by discussions.

“I want this to be a conversation,” he says. “The documentary sheds a light on stories that have rarely been heard in public and is a celebration of people whose contribution to Quebec has been downplayed or ignored. It’s an open invitation to all Quebecers to reconsider ‘what we choose to remember’; a call to learn about and value each other’s heritage in the hopes of creating a more unified and inclusive Quebec for all.” ■

The film, financed by the Secrétariat aux relations avec les Québécois d’expression anglaise with assistance from the NFB, opens the Hudson Film Festival with two screenings (online will also be available) on May 13, the day before English and French Quebecers protest Bill 96. This year’s festival is dedicated to the memory of Jean-Marc Vallée with a special screening of C.R.A.Z.Y. A French sub-titled version of WWCTR will also soon be available. You can go to the What We Choose to Remember website for more details on upcoming screenings. 

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.