Published in the Montreal Gazette on October 26, 2012
To this day, I vividly recall from my youth the sudden yet regular appearance of the local electoral lists on the telephone polls of the community. Who lived with whom, the ages of new neighbours along with their professions were posted publicly for all to scrutinize.
Whether federal, provincial or municipal, these rolls were scrupulously put together by two enumerators (one each from the two leading parties in the previous election) who sauntered from doorway to doorway in order to determine who was eligible to cast a vote in the impending ballot. Indeed, I did the same in my own locality at the time of the national election of 1972.
In that regard, I suppose it was with a certain degree of irony that I acted as a préposé à la liste éléctorale on the day of the September 4 Quebec provincial election. In that capacity, I made a number of observations during the course of a rather long, uninterrupted twelve hours.
The poll to which I was assigned was located in the Ste. Anne – St. Henri riding, not far from my home. We were three at our table for poll number 142: the Deputy Returning Officer (a very young, vivacious francophone woman), the Poll Secretary (an equally young woman of Vietnamese origin), and me, the Electoral List Clerk (a bilingual anglo of a ‘certain age’). Of the three officials, as we all know, the Deputy Returning Officer is the most important.
The first remark I would like to share is that as prospective voters approached our table, they invariably headed towards me. As I was easily forty years the senior of each of the other two individuals attending the poll, this was perhaps not surprising. Endowed with a rather serious demeanor and appearance, it only seemed obvious to many that I would be in charge of the entire operation. With a somewhat wry smile, I directed them to the Deputy Returning Officer and her Poll Secretary who completed the task of verifying the eligibility to vote of the individual before us.
(above, the Electoral List Clerk)
My second observation was that, despite the overwhelming multi-ethnic nature of the poll in question, each and every person to move towards our desk was greeted in French, including by me. Although clearly not their first language, the vast majority of voters spoke an excellent French and were extremely congenial in their deportment. If, however, they spoke to us in English, they were gladly answered in the language of Shakespeare. Indeed, both young women at our station spoke excellent English, and spoke it enthusiastically.
Noting this unregulated linguistic harmony over the course of the ten and half hours that the polls were open, I could not help but contrast it with some of the expedient comments made during the course of the election campaign itself. Specifically, on multiple occasions, both P.Q. leader Pauline Marois and François Legault of the C.A.Q. described the linguistic situation in Montreal as ‘catastrophique’.
That emotive assertion begs the question: “What exactly is ‘catastrophic’ about the language state of affairs in Montreal?”
Undoubtedly, we hear of late more English (and other languages) in the streets of the city. Indeed, the language is now spoken in areas of Montreal where traditionally it had not habitually been heard. Today, for whatever reason, English is often heard a little bit everywhere, even in the ‘quartier latin’.
However, unlike my polling station experience, these are essentially private conversations taking place in very public settings. They cannot be controlled. In fact, it was the late Claude Ryan who once commented that a government can only go so far in attempting to protect the French language before compromising the very free nature of the society in which we all live.
On the other hand, if English is currently heard in parts of Montreal where previously it had not been, the same can also be said for the French language that is now commonly spoken in areas of the metropolis such as Westmount and the West Island suburbs. Happily, it would seem that the city is no longer divided by Boulevard St. Laurent into the outdated and unlamented ‘Two Solitudes’.
And, for that matter, neither was my polling station table nor the others that were close at hand. It would seem that the young people of Montreal have found a way to go beyond the linguistic quarrels of their parents and grandparents, which is my final observation.
Now if only Pauline Marois and François Legault as well would come to realize that yet again The Times They Are a Changin’.