The Old Montréal

Recently I had the chance to take a trip to Old Montréal. That is — the part where they speak in French! A place where you risk hearing that old foreign tongue on the streets, and you can even be addressed in French without a simulcast translation!

That is to say, the Montréal I thought I would be living in. The rest of it is becoming an English town, and it’s a place where English thrives best out of any city presently within a united Canada, as some suggest.

It’s true. I know it because I’m making it worse.

“Bonjour, would you like to join my nation? It’s a beautiful place where everyone is welcome regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender or physical handicap!”

For me, the trip to French Montréal was a very special experience, because I spend most of my time in English Montréal – downtown and a bit to the north where I study in a French school (or rather, I use their library and leave ASAP because of the coldness I feel whenever I’m there – and not just because they are cheaping out on the heat) or I work around the same neighbourhood and greet all the anglos who all seem so disgruntled when I do so with only a “bonjour!”.

At work, it’s usually the Americans who answer back with a gusto-filled “Bonjour!”, as if it were this special and amusing thing to say bonjour. Then, sometimes, they’ll do the sort of apology for not really speaking French, I hope you don’t mind. The giveaway is when I see the gift card printed in English only or the American quarters. “Oh, are you American?” I ask.

The others – whom I imagine for the most part to be Canadians on vacation, McGill students with their obligatory McGill sweater, backpack, thermos, pencil case, shoelaces etc, and militant anglophilic immigrants – the others respond with a short, pointed HI. Another expression of Canadian tolerance, surely.

But to actively try to learn French in Montréal, as a young Anglophone, is a challenge that goes on seemingly without reward. Doing so, you bother just about everyone around you. Especially francophones, half of which seem to want to speak to you in English only, to get practice, getting in some free classes without having to actually go anywhere, and showing off how cosmopolitan they are; and the other half who seem to want nothing to do with someone trying to learn the language – someone who mixes up a word or two or says a funny adverb. Maybe they’ll say “bonjour” once in a while to be polite (but probably not unless you do) or ask you for your notes. But do they invite you to their parties and nights out at Café Campus?

For the young French-language student, the message becomes clear : not worth the trouble! Why try to do something when everyone’s fighting against you? When you feel lucky for even having found a friend in your new, frostbitten foreign home, are you going to snub her just because she speaks your language?

Enfin invité dans une fête avec les francophones -- belle stratégie, mon gars!
“Fêtons en français.” Finally, invited to party with French people! Isn’t this a much better strategy than yelling at cashiers because you mistook their anglo-accented Parisian French for English? (Yes).

And among other anglos, when you try to speak French, the reaction is “Why are you doing that? Why are you being weird?” I know a girl who went to all the English universities in Montréal for various degrees and now works for some activists or other downtown. She still has problems ordering off a French menu. No need for French, apparently! So quit being weird and be tolerant!

It’s my fault. I should have chosen to live in a less-anglo neighbourhood. I should have spent more time in my books, transcribing the adventures of Sophie-Anne and Mélanie in their new apartment, putting the right male-objectifying form of the verb in the little spaces. But I did enough of that at home. The idea was to move onto native speakers who didn’t exist where I come from. It seems that to surround oneself with the language you’ve got to move to Trois-Rivières (if you want to be stuck owning a car – since I’m not stuck in the 1960s, I don’t, hence Montréal), or just go to Paris already.

I was thinking that in going to a French school, things would be different. But it was the same dichotomy I outlined above. Either I was the Discount English Teacher or some kind of foreign jerk-idiot, who was prima facie set against Québec and its language and all it stood for, or too “macho” or who knows why I was so objectionable.

Well, yes, that was the plan!

Well, yes, that was the plan!

Oh yes, learning French in Montréal – hitting your head against a wall every single day.

Happily, I haven’t given up, full of resentment. I still write on this website in French (with the occasional exception — JUST FOR YOU!). This site has become the questioning of a new Montréality that takes into account the necessary status of the French language – unlike certain websites listed in my own “links” section. My last chance at communicating with the francophone community. It’s because of these very experiences that I realize the question is much more complex than the rather simplistic response asserting that “those people should learn French!”. Oh, sure. Just like that.

If we already risk not giving a damn about French, I imagine experiences like the ones I’ve described would make any given first-world spoiled brat rather pissed off about the whole affair – with the disappointment adding bitterness to the rejection.

A charm offensive seems a much better approach. If you want immigrants to integrate into French, without bringing along a hidden motive to help destroy it later on, integrate them yourselves! I remember seeing how the OQLF website recommended being a “frenchifying person” (sorry, that’s my best off-the-cuff translation), by rather rudely and tactlessly imposing French on foreigners. Instead you should invite them over, ask them if they need help with their French, speak to them slowly (and well!). Help valorize French as a welcoming place where interesting things happen – for you and for them as well!

If it remains a mere question of compliance with legislation, interpersonal warfare, the coldness between peoples – francophones risk losing the moral battle. Because the deck is already stacked against them – losing or winning the moral battle may be what determines the outcome of whole war for the preservation of French in North America.

And so I was thinking as my journey to the east side of Montréal began….

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