Published in the Montreal Gazette on January 23, 2013
The matter of bilingualism – or the lack of it – at the Société de Transport de Montréal is indeed an intriguing one (“Bilingual workers a phone call away: Lisée”, Gazette, Saturday, January 19, 2013, A-1)
All of us of a certain age recall fondly the days of official bilingualism throughout the extensive Montreal transportation network. I myself remember to this day the small French-English, metallic sign near both the operators of tramways, and later buses: “Safe Driving Requires My Whole Attention – Please Do Not Talk to Me”, it read succinctly. No hand held mobile devices sported by drivers in those days.
At that time, chauffeurs would also, more often than not, call out in both languages in a loud, clear voice the major stops along their route. This frequently led to some mildly amusing pronouncements. Take the all-important Number 15 St. Catherine Street line, for example: “Atwater / Hatwater”; “Gey / Guy”; “de la montagne / Mountain”; and the always indistinguishable “Peel / Peel” were often heard years ago by appreciative passengers.
Later, with the introduction of the Metro in 1966, commuters arriving at the end of either one of the original two lines were curtly informed: “Terminus – tout le monde descend; terminus, everyone off”. Needless to say, all other announcements of whatever nature over the Metro’s public address system were delivered in both French and English. This was extremely important, especially during Expo’67 and the 1976 Olympics when Montreal was literally inundated with visitors from other countries.
Today, of course, the situation is completely different as English (or any other language, for that matter) is virtually never heard, or even seen, in this city’s otherwise contemporary transportation network, except when used by passengers themselves.
The pursuit of unilingual French signage in Montreal’s Metro has in fact produced several noteworthy manifestations of small mindedness on the part of a handful of obviously strategically well-placed linguistic power brokers.
Take, for instance, a number of years ago when local street maps began to appear near the exit of each and every Metro station. “Plan du quartier”, they headlined only in French. However, the fact that ‘plan’ is a perfectly valid French word did not detract from the undeniable truth that it was also an English term. Months later the charts were all replaced with ones that read “Carte du quartier”.
Around the same time, emergency procedure signs began to appear in each Metro wagon throughout the subway system. The notices, which at the outset were not particularly large, reduced the English language fallback instructions to one half the size of the French, rendering them for all intents and purposes useless, especially in the context of a catastrophic situation.
Small mindedness indeed!
Nowadays, the seemingly perennial question is centered more on the linguistic capabilities of the numerous employees of the STM. As the Société de transport de Montréal is a hopelessly secretive organization very much inclined to protect itself and not the public it serves, it is difficult to know who to believe in the current controversy.
In this regard, the STM does not help itself or its credibility. Attempts, for example, to extract information with regard to consequences (if any) faced by drivers reported to be driving while talking on hand held mobile phones inevitably face a metaphorical cul – de – sac.
In so far as language is concerned, ultimately the issue seems to come down to the rights of francophones who speak no other tongue than that of French. That then brings us directly to the subject of the hiring policies of the STM, about which, unfortunately, we can only speculate.
If faced with two candidates for a given job of totally equal competence except that one speaks two (perhaps even three languages) while the other speaks only French, that same small number of strategically well-placed petty STM decision makers mentioned above seem to feel that they must choose the unilingual candidate over the bilingual one.
If this is not the case, perhaps Société de transport de Montréal could once and for all lift the veil of secretiveness with which it shrouds itself and come clean about its operations with a public it purports to serve.
(below, number 26 Beaubien bus from the early 1970’s, like the one I used to take to get to Rosemount High School in the city’s East End where I taught from 1973 – 1983))