Quebec Harmony or Separation?

I walk into a painting class organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts as part of their Activities after forking over nearly $300 at the front desk. I greet all other art enthusiasts with a warm smile and exchange pleasantries. After a while the teacher, a dishevelled lady sporting a shabby attire walks in and welcomes everyone in French, and I, being in this great city long enough to know a few words, say a hearty “bonjour”, taking delight in managing to sound authentic.

The teacher proceeds with the introductions, of which I only understand one third, and starts taking the register whilst at the same time taking interest in each participant’s background story. When the figurative peace pipe is passed on to me, I start by giving my name and explaining my experiences with painting in English, at which point our teacher looks at me with a patronizing smile, wagging her paint stained finger at me saying: “no, no, no, we speak French in Quebec,”.

In my view this is  an anomaly seeing that we are not in France and Canada’s constitution clearly states that the country is bilingual. Nevertheless I am not in any position to argue my point because by then our ever so tyrannical teacher had decided my story, and my inability to be coherent in French, were not satisfactory enough, deeming others more worthy of the class time, and thus I was overlooked and forced to listen to others yammer on about their encounter with the art of painting.

Now I consider myself a well-educated man, spending five years obtaining three University degrees, and I also consider myself well-travelled having visited most charming countries in the world, one of which was France on more than one occasion as I did my Master’s thesis on Berthe Morisot.

However, in my darkest hour, in my most inept moment of communication, at the worst state of being lost in translation, I have never been so belittled by someone for not speaking the language they spoke, and never so chastised for my tongue, and I have had dealings with some unceremoniously peeved waiters in Paris after sending back the duck confit.

This unfortunate, ultra humiliating event begs the question: what is the fundamental role of language other than communication? Well if Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois have us wrongly convinced, it has to do with identity and culture. I am baffled by all the Quebec political parties seeing the French language as the single most effective tool that unites. Would ordering wine and cheese in French make me a true Quebecer?

Pauline Marois said in a statement: “The message has to be clear: in Quebec we live in French, we work in French, we communicate in French… Currently half of the enrollments in English language colleges are students whose mother tongue is one other than English. Of all the students whose mother tongue is neither French nor English, half choose English language colleges. This situation has to be remedied.”

To make matters worse, they are proposing to take away the option of sending a child to an English school. As if Mathematics, Physics, Biology or Chemistry taught in English would make a child morally unsage, or History taught in French would make the outcome more favorable.

I am very fond of the French language, and in my opinion Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Hugo should be read in French lest the poetry of their language is lost, however how can we deny the younger generation the poetics of other languages in falsified fear of succumbing to the evils of English? Why are our leaders under the impression that our identity should be defined by a language? Why should we deny our children the chance to ever experience Shakespeare, Dickens or Plath the way the writers intended? And where does our liberty and freedom of speech fit into this whole thing? Is freedom of speech only conceivable if speak in our leaders’ tongue? Is liberty only foreseeable if we all had the same culture?

Through my experiences the following points have become very clear: I am not an Iranian, I am not an Englishman, I am not French, I am not Canadian, and even though I am permitted by the laws of those very nations to reside in their countries, I do not characterize my identity thusly. Let me be judged by the virtue of my character and not by the language I speak or the perceived culture of the majority in the land I live.

I am a man of many abilities and many flaws, but above all I am connected with humanity through the very essence that science has over and over proved superseding: my genes which date back to the dawn of mankind. I refuse to abandon my ethics and my rights because of a few bigoted lumbering old leaders who through pursuit of power are willing to take away my freedom of expression. We share more, differ less, think alike in such a way that unity is the only option to improve, so we must do more and let those at the top know we do not stand for division, hatred, and racism under the guise of nationalism.   

“Barcelona fell, and you were not there, and I was not there, and perhaps if we had been, the city would have stood and the world would have been changed and better. But we were here, and here together we remain, and our city won’t fall, and if it should, better that we lie buried in its ruins than be found absent a second time.” (Dalton Trumbo)    

Incidentally the cover artwork was done at that very painting class and is my homage to Mordecai Richler who wrote about this subject in the New Yorker in 1991; and the other is The Dance a melodious allegory to human harmony by Henri Matisse.

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  • Quebec is not a country; it’s a province of Canada, a nation
    which is bilingual. By alienating the English speaking community the political
    parties are trying to conjure up nationalistic, divisive and racist views in
    hopes of demonizing the federal government and wining votes. How is separation from
    the rest of Canada ever going to be good for the people of Quebec? The world is
    becoming smaller by the day, and these parties want to make it harder for
    skilled workers to come and help out with the economy.

  • Excellent article. My mother tongue is French, but I agree with a lot of your points. There is one thing that I’d like to point out though. As you know, culturally, Québec is not very close to France, for many reasons. History for one. What I mean is, St-Denys Garneau, Tremblay, Hébert should be read. Authors, poets from Québec. French classics are what they are, but essentially, they are French. If you can be inspired by Richler, no doubt Anne Hébert will inspire you as well. I’m not saying you haven’t read them, but the way it comes off, it sounds like you know more about French culture, or lend it more importance. Naming Québécois artists would’ve given your arguments even more weight in my opinion. But nonetheless, a great read. Thank you very much for sharing.

    • Thank you for your comment. I am ashamed to admit I’m extremely
      uninformed when it comes to literature from Quebec. Having studied in UK, we
      tend to read classic authors most of whom have written in English, so your
      point is a very accurate one.
      It was only when I moved here that I became aware
      of the historical divide in Canada, and that is one issue that saddens me
      because I believe history must be learned from and not repeated. The political
      parties seem to use old wounds to their advantage in order to grab power, and I’m
      sure when they get elected they will only think about stuffing their own
      pockets, but nevertheless people of Quebec are used and in turn they form this
      negative attitude toward foreigners because of small, insignificant issues like
      language. I think Canada’s future requires unity between its people and they must speak up against scapegoating of minorities for political gain.

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