I have read with interest the views of Robert Schryer on Quebec’s seemingly endless language debate (“Language shouldn’t polarize us”, Gazette, May 4, 2012, A-17). They quickly brought to mind my own experiences in this province as an Anglo – Quebecer that were in some manner similar to those of Mr. Schryer while in other ways different.
Born in the working-class suburb of Verdun shortly after the Second World War, my first recollections were of a community linguistically divided. At the time, most English – speaking people did not speak French and so whatever communication there was between the two language groups depended on the semantic abilities of the francophones. Each community had its own schools and churches; indeed, some even had their own streets!
My family left Verdun when I was ten, yet similar de-facto segregation continued in other parts of Greater Montreal. I attended English-language schools where we were frequently taught French by well-intentioned pedagogues who quite often themselves struggled with the language of Molière! The end result was that while I studied French, I did not speak it.
Time passed and, as it would happen, I fell in with a group of French – speaking students from Quebec City. It was 1968 and I was all of 21. Most were studying at Laval University and, to this day, I don’t remember one being incapable of communicating with me in a next – to impeccable English.
A year and a half later came the October Crisis of 1970. At the time, I travelled regularly between graduate studies at Carleton University in Ottawa and that same cluster of good friends at Laval University. In fact, I was in the Vieille Capitale on the evening of the discovery of the body of Pierre Laporte in the trunk of an automobile on Montreal’s South Shore. Political passions became somewhat less ardent for a brief period of time.
Eventually, I returned to Montreal and settled in a small Victorian row home in the centre-sud ward of the city, not too far from Lafontaine Park. I lived there from 1975 – 1988. I am not exaggerating when I assert that I was the only non – francophone in the neighbourhood. Needless to say that my spoken French improved quickly and dramatically as the years passed.
It was then that I first experienced some good-natured pressure to choose. My new – found francophone friends and neighbours (along with those I had met years earlier at Laval University) were going to vote for the Parti Québécois in the November 1976 election that ultimately swept the P.Q. to power. While I never really revealed how I voted, I believe to this day that there were some very strong doubts about my commitment to the ‘national cause’.
As my attachment to my friends and neighbours deepened, the 1980 referendum was upon us. I was boxed into a corner and forced to choose.
Unlike the referendum of 1995 that of 1980 was discussed quite openly, which even as an eleven-year – old Mr. Schryer recalls. On several occasions during the referendum campaign, I was asked by francophone friends the same question Gazette columnist David Johnston alluded to in the L’Actualité controversy of a month or so ago: If forced to choose, did I consider myself to be first a Canadian or first a Quebecer? Interestingly, after considerable hesitation, I gave essentially the same answer all those years ago that Mr. Johnston suggests in his article of April 10 last (“How immersed are Anglos? The conversation continues”, Op-Ed page): “If absolutely forced to choose, I considered myself to be, above all, a Montrealer.”
Certainly I was never more pleased to be a montréalais than on May 20, 1980 – Referendum Day. Of course, I voted, and later that day, I made my way to the Chief Returning Officer’s headquarters to watch the returns come in. My riding did indeed vote “Oui”, with my own poll voting in that same fashion 100 – 53. There was much excitement in the hot and smoky room. However, as the results entered from across the province, it became quite clear that the “Non” forces would triumph.
Later that same historic evening, my companions and I ventured to a nearby pub where obviously there was some sadness and soul-searching among the many patrons. Nevertheless, I thought it quite remarkable that such a divisive period through which Quebec had just passed took place with an absolute minimum of acrimony among families and friends. That simple fact was just one more reason for me to be proud of my Montreal identity.