A ride on the Montreal Métro

February 16th, 2013

Here we have a rather extraordinary scene aboard the Montreal Métro.

As you can see, a woman is ranting at fellow passengers, shouting and waving her fingers at them because she suffered the indignity of having to hear a language other than French (most likely English) in a public place. This is the gist of her opening gambit: “Here in our home, it’s the same thing whether it’s at your home or ours. You are in Quebec and it is in French! IT IS FRENCH! Period! No! You speak to me in French or you don’t speak to me at all.”

One could sit down and write all day about it, but I prefer to view the scene as parody, a sort of play within a play. The woman plays the part of  Quebec, the other passengers the rest of Canada and the Métro car Canada itself. Given the opportunity of leaving the car, she chooses to remain on board and continue putting forward her point of view. Meanwhile the other passengers shuffle around wondering what to do, in the end doing not much at all. They’re particularly polite throughout, in a passive way, and the Métro car continues to go around in circles.


“I feel fine”

February 17th, 2011

The French language has an emotional intensity far beyond that of English. When you accidentally bump into someone in a supermarket you are not sorry, but desolated. The play you went to last night was not good or great, but formidable. French ploughs the emotional extremes, as shown by the love affair with the subjunctive mood that French people seem to have. They would never use such a benign word as ‘nice’ to describe anything.

But that’s the French, as in those for whom France is called home. In the last couple of weeks in Quebec I have heard a response to the question ‘ça va?’ (‘how are you?’) that one would never hear in France; I know this because a couple of Parisian friends have told me so. Whereas French people usually define how they feel in the most expressive terms, Quebecers often define themselves by what they are not. ‘Pas si pire’, they say. ‘Not so bad’. Defining how you are by how you are not is not very French and sounds odd and quirky when done in the French language. If anything, it’s a very Irish thing to do – a relic of a time when the closest thing to going to a mental health therapist was confession.

So why would Quebecers respond to ‘how are you?’ by saying ‘not so bad’? I have a theory.

Like the Irish, Canadians are defined internationally and, to a lesser extent, domestically by what they are not. Canadians are not Americans, and the Irish (well, most of them) are not British. As if to prove the point, a good chunk of Canadians sow a little maple leaf flag onto their luggage when travelling. ‘Yank I ain’t!’, screams the square inch of cotton (and probably with good reason). Canadians and Americans might share a continent, but they don’t necessarily share a mindset.

Zooming in a little more, Quebecers don’t necessarily share a mindset with either Americans or fellow Canadians or even with themselves. Emotions? They’re for wrapping up with lashings of tape and stuffing somewhere between your heart and your mouth, never to be heard. And you know that famous ‘gift of the gab’ that Irish people are so famous for? It’s only there to avoid talking about actual feelings. Emotions? Lock ‘em up and throw away the key while you tell us another story about your uncle. Defining what you are by what you are not is not exclusive to identity – it can also influence the use of language.

As many as 40% of French-speaking Quebecers have Irish ancestry on at least one side of the family. So here is my theory: ‘pas si pire’ is a direct translation of ‘not so bad’ that began with the Irish in Quebec using an intensely outwardly emotional language with a way of thinking that was introverted and secretive. Thoughts? Perhaps you’re too secretive to comment . . .

Sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble, très bien ensemble…

February 8th, 2011

In the past 24 hours, two curious little events have brought the issue of the French language and the Conservative Party of Canada right back into the media radar.

First, there was Prime Minister Stephen Harper giving a joint press conference with President Barack Obama in Washington. The usual pleasantries were exchanged, beginning with Obama saying that their relationship was not only strategic, but also based on friendship. Harper replied in English, agreeing with that sentiment. For American viewers, this is what they heard before American news networks cut their coverage of the press conference: “Well, first of all, thank you, Barack.  Both — thank you for your friendship both personal and national.  And thank you for all the work you’ve done and all of your people have done to bring us to our announcement today.”

So why would the news networks, and I mean not some of them but all of them, panic and cut to studio discussion of what is going on in Egypt? It’s because Harper suddenly began a lengthy monologue in French. Uh-oh. Harper is perfectly cabable of speaking English; in fact English is his mother tongue, with his fluency in French being a more recent acquisition following more cumbersome efforts two decades ago as a Reform Party MP. So why did he give the lion’s share of his speech in Washington in French, in doing so forcing Obama into making bad jokes and leaving a bunch of journalists twiddling their thumbs?

The answer can be given in a simple way or a more complex way. First, the simple way. Harper is Prime Minister of a minority government that currently holds only 10 of 75 seats in Québec, the only province with a predominantly French-speaking population. These are facts. Another fact is that the last federal election was in 2008, so every day that passes is one day closer to another round of voting. Harper knows that grabbing, say, a dozen or 15 Québec seats at the next election could be the difference between remaining as Prime Minister or not. That’s the simple explanation, but it’s not as straightforward as that.

The major federal parties in Canada have come to realise that it is not clever politics to have a unilingual leader. Rightly or wrongly, leaders need to be not just bilingual, but conspicuously so. They need to slip some French in while in Saskatoon and slide a bit of English in there while in Québec City. The Conservatives, Brian Mulroney aside, have traditionally been inept – sorry, suicidal – when it comes to the sensitive politics of language. What would you think if I told you that George Drew, Conservative leader in 1950s, actually called French Canadians “a defeated race” and labelled the Quebecois “French Canadian bastards”? Does that sound like good politics to you? Since the 1980s, Harper has moved from the Drew school of thinking to a far more pragmatic style of leadership. That’s why he gave his speech in Washington in French. Sure, the vast majority of viewers and people in the room had no idea what he was saying and probably thought ‘oh look, here’s some Canadian again with his fancy French that I cannot understand,’ in doing so reinforcing the widely-held view in the USA that Canada simply does not matter. But Harper had only one constituency in mind during that press conference, and it wasn’t Obama or CNN viewers, but rather Canadian voters. More specifically, Quebecois voters. That’s what makes him such a formidable politician – he is simply magnificent at knowing who he wants to speak to and staying in power.

That same weekend, however, Harper’s Québec lieutenant, MP Maxime Bernier, told a Nova Scotia radio station that there is no need for Bill 101 in Québec. This Bill is the one that, among other things, legally established French as the predominant language in business, economics and politics in the province in the 1970s. It is the main reason why I have always thought of the Parti Québécois as ‘un parti conservateur de la gauche’ – a left-wing conservative party. The Bill works in a zero-sum sort of way, with the tipping of the scales in favour of French being at the expense of English, and can be seen as reactionary. Many Quebecois embrace this reaction. So was it good politics for Bernier to publicly oppose the now-entrenched Bill 101 on the same weekend that Harper forewent the opportunity to butter-up an American audience so that he could appeal to Québec voters? Indeed, did Harper and his team decide to go French in Washington so as to limit the damage that Bernier might have done? Do the two cancel each other out? Are the Conservatives going to mess up on Quebec forever? Whatever the case, conservative commentator Tasha Kheiriddin credits Bill 101 for saving Canada even though she doesn’t actually like it. So there you go.