I find it somewhat ironic that Canada’s perhaps most bilingual and bicultural prime minister ever (yes, even more so than his dad) has managed to embroil himself in a linguistic brouhaha of the first order. Without a doubt, Justin Trudeau’s failure in Sherbrooke to respond in English to questions put to him in the language of Shakespeare was an error in judgment that I am sure he is still regretting today.
It is very possible that the prime minister thought, having already answered – with little negative reaction – in English in Peterborough a question put to him in French, that he should simply do the same in Sherbrooke. He might also have flashed back to last June’s Fête Nationale celebration in the provincial capital when, switching to English to comment for the media on the Brexit vote, he was roundly booed by those gathered about.
Whatever motivated him to do what he did in both Peterborough and Sherbrooke, we’ll never know. The point, however, has been made and I am sure Trudeau will henceforth be giving the country a strong dose of exemplary bilingualism wherever he is in the land.
What the Sherbrooke episode did vividly reveal, however, is the extent to which resentment and anger on the part of many anglophones, particularly older ones, is still strongly borne some 40 years after the adoption of Bill 101 by the Quebec legislature.
While the Trudeau incident in the Townships became the focus of attention for this pent up frustration, it amazes me that so many linguistically sensitive individuals seemingly have chosen to turn their eyes away from, in my opinion, more upsetting language-related issues than the prime minister’s ephemeral gaffe in Peterborough and Sherbrooke.
Let’s take the Société de transport de Montréal, as just one example. Its semantic policy, which most Montrealers have seemingly grown to accept, gives the impression that languages other than French simply do not exist. From often unilingual and unsmiling ticket vendors to public address announcements exclusively in the language of Molière, the Montréal Métro would indeed appear to be the last bastion of disillusioned Quebec nationalists.
While it is true, as the STM assures us, that emergency announcements would be made in other languages, I have yet to hear one despite my daily presence in the system. I guess we are to believe that there have never been any urgent situations in the extensive subway network in the last few decades.
The STM’s French only policy is so rigidly applied that even at the Vendome Station in NDG directional signs to the new McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) complex carry merely the French language acronym CUSM. I would imagine that this would pose some problems for many English-speaking patients, particularly the elderly.
The transportation commission’s obsession with language carries yet over to the very pronunciation of place names. As the Metro trains pull into the various stations, we have all grown coldly accustomed to the proper, and very English, nouns – such as Atwater, Peel, and McGill – being communicated with a very strong French language enunciation.
The City of Montreal is also capable of displaying its own linguistic drivel. As just one example, tablets placed in public parks and squares to relate information about statues and whatnot found within their confines are in French only. Not to be outdone by STM in the realm of pettiness, the very bottom of each and every plaque reads: “Information in English is available on the above Web site.”
In a similar manner, a number of years ago, while perusing an archeological dig in Lower Town Quebec, I noticed a French-only explanatory tablet, which concluded in this preposterous fashion: “An English version of this text is available at the tourist office in Upper Town.” I don’t know how many non-francophones stampeded the uptown hill to pick up their pamphlet, but the very suggestion struck me as being considerably distasteful.
In February of 1909, a letter to the editor appeared in the now defunct Montreal Star in which the writer – over a century ago – praised the merits of bilingualism. “This is a move-on age,” wrote one Paul Denys, “and what may have been good enough for yesterday, will scarcely do for tomorrow. Advance, therefore, should be our motto.”
And that watchword should be good enough for our prime minister, Peterborough, Sherbrooke, and, indeed, our very own Montreal.
Below, explanatory tablet in Dominion Square urging non-francophones to go to the Internet if they wish an English translation.