When people hear me speak French, they often assume that I learned it at a Toronto high school. When possible, I let them persist under that delusion. The truth is that I spent the first quarter century of my life in Quebec, yet somehow failed to become anything close to bilingual. And it was not just me, though my French is worse than that of some of my childhood friends. The Montreal of my childhood was a place where many anglophones could exist in a bubble. Clustered densely in the western corners of Montreal, our neighbourhoods were still mostly sealed off from the province’s majority francophone population. I was among the last generation of Quebec anglos that believed we could live a full and successful life in the province without learning fluent French.
The few times I interacted regularly with francophones were on my family’s weekend trips to our cottage in the Laurentian hamlet of Ivry-sur-le-Lac—a place where weekenders like us were dependent on French-speaking locals to plow our driveways and fix our outboard motors. After a big storm or a harsh cold snap, something always would break down at the cottage. The septic tank would fail. A pipe would freeze. A circuit would fry. If the job was simple, my dad would do it himself. But when things got more complicated, he’d call Albert—a local contractor who could fix anything.
My dad would speak to Albert in a respectful but awkward mix of simple English and heavily accented French. Albert would respond in kind, with languages reversed, and the two would go back and forth like this for a while. Eventually, the expert handyman would take out his tools and get the job done. In this way, Albert kept our house, and many other Ivry “country houses” (in the local idiom), from collapsing.
Albert lived near us, but not among us. As vacationers, we decorated our lawn with dirt-filled tires in bloom with begonias, hammocks strung between shaved-at-the-waist pine trees, a Wiffle-ball diamond, hobby gardens happily surrendered to rabbits, beached rowboats, and canoes with funny names painted on the side. Not so with Albert—whose house sat on the inland side of the water. His property was full of band saws, wheelbarrows, piles of gravel, and sand.
When my father drove me to play tennis with our local friends—the Steinbergs, the Lewiteses, the Perlmans, the Robinsons, the Ptacks, the Millers, the Decklebaums—I sometimes would pass Albert’s house and lock eyes with his children and other younger relatives, some not much older than I, as they fed tree branches into a shredder or helped their father unload cargo from a pickup. Those were our two solitudes, English and French. And until all too recently, I never questioned why it should be so.
This past year, André Pratte and I edited Legacy: How French Canadians Shaped North America. This collection of essays by French- and English-speaking Canadians includes a fine literary profile of Jack Kerouac by Deni Béchard that explains how On the Road—and the beat literary movement it inspired—emerged from the period between 1840 and 1930 that saw thousands of French-Canadians emigrate to New England. Margaret Atwood demonstrates that many of the accomplishments of modern feminism can be traced to the pioneering work of the writer Gabrielle Roy. Philip Marchand brings us into the world of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye—a French-Canadian explorer who forged a trail deep into the wilderness by building respectful alliances with First Nations. While the settler communities of New England were waging a war of extermination against surrounding Indigenous peoples, La Vérendrye was trading, negotiating, learning, teaching—establishing a rough model for the nation-to-nation relations that modern groups seek in their negotiations with the federal government. In an especially moving piece, Jeremy Kinsman argues that it was the francophone Georges Vanier—not his well-heeled anglophone nemesis, Vincent Massey—who fought for the Canadian admission of Jewish refugees in the aftermath of World War II, and who forged in the crucible of wartime suffering a humanist creed that foreshadowed modern Canadian multiculturalism.
The experience of immersing myself in the lives of these eminent men and women made me understand how thoroughly our Canadian society—all of it, not just the part between Ontario and Labrador—is the product of French civilization. But it also led me to regret my own attitudes. Had I been less insular during my Quebec years, this proud French heritage wouldn’t have been something I stumbled upon in my professional role as a middle-aged editor. It would have been part of my lived Québécois identity. Now that Legacy is in print, I have had the opportunity to reflect on why it isn’t.
The younger me who drove past Albert’s house saw the division of labour between French and English as part of the natural order of things. My father worked in finance. Henry Steinberg was a judge. Richard Deckelbaum was a doctor. Presumably, these were not people who knew their way around a piledriver or snowplow. Who else but Albert was going to keep our little enclave clean and functional?
And though this may sound like special pleading, I will say that we had our own troubles. We weren’t just anglos, but also Jews—a minority within a minority. The most sought-after homes in our part of Ivry existed on a Lake Manitou lakefront road christened with a hidden Yiddish name—Los Mira Lane, from loz mir aleyn, which means “leave me alone.” Water ski along the shore from one end of the lane to the other, and you’d be hard pressed to find a single Gentile, let alone a francophone. This was still the 1970s, the decade of the Munich Massacre and the Yom Kippur War. Much of Montreal’s Jewish community consisted of Holocaust survivors and their children. Discrimination was something that happened to us.
Even among my non-Jewish friends, a sense of anglo victimhood was on the rise. Particularly under René Lévesque, the Parti Québécois created a massive bureaucracy aimed at promoting French. New laws limited the use of English on road and commercial signage and severely restricted access to English-language public schooling. L’Office de la langue française unleashed a legion of clipboard-wielding language gendarmes. At times, it really did go too far. Even many francophones came to believe as much.
In such Montreal-area anglophone bastions as Hampstead, Town of Mount Royal, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Baie D’Urfé, Hudson, and Westmount, our panic was expressed in the form of rectangular lawn signs marked “For Sale/À Vendre.” Real-estate values plunged. A Montreal diaspora sprang up in Toronto. But my parents, proud Montrealers, stuck it out—to this day, in fact—refusing to join the exodus. My breadwinning dad was sufficiently established in his work in financial services—a largely anglophone industry—that he could run out the professional clock as a unilingual.
Today, it’s virtually impossible to grow up in Quebec without learning at least reasonably fluent conversational French. Most twenty- or thirtysomething Quebecers I meet are comfortable in both languages—studying or working in French, say, while taking in their Netflix and Twitter in English.
I would be proud to report that we young anglos of my era grew to champion the new movement for social justice in Quebec, and to embrace a growing sense of multiculturalism. Alas, the opposite happened. Among my friends, francophone culture was something we too often mocked as vulgar. When we’d smoke, we’d buy Players, Craven A, and other locally popular brands, then shove the packs up into the shoulders of too-tight T-shirts—a send-up of the street-corner French tough who existed as a stock figure of anglo mockery. Other elements of the stereotype: the fuzzy, adolescent moustache; the wardrobe dominated by low-end heavy-metal leatherwork; the Nova SS with J’aime Ma Femme mud flaps, Offenbach in the cassette deck, and fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror.
In hindsight, I realize that, at a jacket-and-tie private anglo boys’ school such as mine was, it was more socially difficult to be a francophone than a Jew (or perhaps even a visible minority). I remember one particular French classmate, Fred, who drove in every day from an outlying francophone community forty-five minutes away. Never mind that his father was a bilingual, Shakespeare-quoting doctor who sacrificed much so that his son could learn fluent English—my language—at a private school. We called this classmate a “pepper”—the rough equivalent of “wop” or “kyke”—to his face.
We read Molière in French class and so knew (or should have known) that Fred’s native language was as rich as our own. But in our narrow Victorian-holdover bigotry, that was forgotten. And Fred’s Frenchness became wrapped up in the issue of class. We were bullies, even as we obsessed over our own victimized status within a majority French province.
A few years ago, my alma mater, Selwyn House, invited me back for career day. It was the first time I’d been at the school since I graduated in 1985, and I was shocked by the transformation. In the cafeteria, the wartime-cookbook British fare of shepherd’s pie and boiled Brussels sprouts had been replaced by a modern menu designed by nutritionists. No one sang “God Save the Queen” at assembly anymore. The terrifying cane, which a middle-school teacher had used to discipline wayward boys in my day, was gone. The student body, once lily-white, now was a multicultural reflection of Montreal. And I heard as much French in the hallways as English. Queen Victoria, it seemed, had left the building. On the outside, these children wear the same school uniform I’d worn thirty years earlier—but they exhibit, within them, much less of the defensive cultural anxiety exhibited by my own generation of anglos.
Despite my best efforts, Quebec left its mark on me. Growing up, whenever I visited my cousins in Toronto, there was an unspoken gulf between us even though we all spoke English as a mother tongue and watched the same shows on CBC and CTV. Our divisions were especially notable in the realm of music, a matter of critical importance to any teenager. The fin de siècle atmosphere within our shrinking, isolated island community made us, like disaffected youths all over, more receptive to dark European techno and bleak British alt ballads about grey northern towns. Many of my fellow Montreal-born friends felt like outsiders when the Tragically Hip were performing their last concert. The Hip were not a thing in Quebec. We were more interested in the melancholy airs of the Smiths and Roxy Music.
To be an anglo in Quebec during the 1980s was to be born into a multiply nested counterculture. I was a Jew within the anglo community, an anglo within Quebec, a Quebecer within English-speaking Canada, and a Canadian within an American-dominated continent. It was a status that imparted to us an inborn suspicion of all things mainstream—including the arena-rock hair bands that we saw on MuchMusic. I felt a closer cultural kinship with Claude Rajotte than with Erica Ehm or Steve Anthony, whether I was watching him on MusiquePlus in French or listening to him on CHOM–FM in English. Despite all my language bigotry, I found myself buying French albums during my trips to Dutchy’s (including, yes, Mitsou).
Sometimes, I’d watch sports in French—the cultural attitudes of the commentators often seemed closer to my own than did the hayseed Canadiana of Howie Meeker and Don Cherry. On school trips to Quebec City and Ottawa, I came to appreciate—on some level, at least—that the uneasy cohabitation of French and English was essential to the creation of a Canadian identity. Standing on the Plains of Abraham, you realize that history feels more real in Quebec than it does in many other parts of the country: the waxing and waning of English and French powers vis-à-vis one another has no counterpart beyond the province’s borders. Je me souviens has many meanings, even for an English speaker. This legacy is one of the reasons I became so interested in military history as a teenager and spent two summers practicing my Québécois French in Normandy as I traced the routes of Allied armies penetrating inland from les plages du débarquement in 1944.
Even now, as someone who has lived in Toronto for almost two decades, I cannot shake the Quebec out of me. Both professionally and socially, I notice that my human bonds grow fastest and strongest with other members of the Quebec diaspora. Those multiply nested countercultures seem to give us a unique outlook on life—a combination of self-awareness, clannishness, polyglotism, and cosmopolitan posturing that often leaves us chatting alone, amongst ourselves in the kitchen, at parties in Toronto and Vancouver. The jokes we tell and the questions we ask may be in English. But the backstory comes with French subtitles.
This appeared in the January/February 2017 issue under the headline “Je M’Excuse.”