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Tour de Babel Illustration by Karston Smith.

Tour de Babel

Caitlin Stall-Paquet on how Quebec’s false French-English dichotomy erases its linguistic minorities.

ONCE, BEFORE EASTER DINNER, I lent my Francophone father Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version. I was visiting his home in Quebec’s Eastern Townships and was excited for him to read my favourite Richler novel; I knew he’d enjoy the story of an aging, scandal-plagued television producer documenting his life’s stories while all around him parts of Montreal become a ghost town in the wake of the 1995 referendum. I also knew the book would remind him of my zaida—my mom’s father—who referred to him as Benny, an affectionate Jewish-ified version of Benoit. I left the book on the dining room table without a second thought. Later, one of our guests, an author who was once an active member of the independence group Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale, saw the book and demanded “Qui lit ça?” in a tone that would have put a Spanish Inquisitor to shame.

Richler’s mockery of Quebeckers certainly never made him popular with Francophones. Tensions peaked leading up to 1995, when Richler published a satirical book, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, deriding the province’s language laws. The fact that nobody was safe from the writer’s searing criticism—including the Anglo Jews who populate his narratives—is rarely brought up when Francophone journalists discuss his legacy. While much of his writing has been translated (poorly) into French, I wouldn’t be surprised if his Francophone critics don’t understand his egalitarian dispensation of satire because they haven’t actually taken the time to read his work.

My father returned Barney’s Version a few months later with a promotional bookmark for our guest’s book about separatism nestled amidst Richler’s pages: our own private joke about Quebec’s world-renowned novelist who could barely get a Montreal library named after him.

Nowadays, living in Montreal, people get excited about me being the daughter of a Francophone Catholic man and Anglophone Jewish woman, a quintessential local combination. The Missisquoi area of the Eastern Townships, where I grew up, was less enthusiastic. The area was historically home to Anglophone Loyalists from New England, as well as French Catholics, leading to cultural strongholds or, at times, villages like my hometown of Frelighsburg, where there was an Anglican and a Catholic church, but no synagogue. My alma mater, École Secondaire Massey-Vanier, was a mammoth high school of about 1,800 students, split into English and French sides—our incarnation of Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes.

After completing primary and secondary education in French, I chose to go to CEGEP and university in English—my mom and her Jewish family had never had a problem with my Frenchness, and I thought Anglo schooling would offer a space where I wouldn’t need to justify my identity. When I picked Concordia University over the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), I also ditched Radio-Canada programming, moved in with Torontonian roommates and played catch-up on all the English pop culture I’d missed out on. My roommates poked fun at me for being unaware of “common knowledge,” and my Francophone family members occasionally called me “assimilated”—an insult that implied my Anglo-Jewish heritage was secondary. I felt perpetually out of place. At the same time, my inability to make a legitimate claim on either language was freeing: it provided my twenty-year-old self with an interstitial space to reflect on the meaning of cultural and linguistic belonging while most of my cohort was focused on getting drunk, high and laid.

POSITIONING ONESELF AS AN OUTSIDER is nothing new, especially in the literary world. In Montreal, we have Guillaume Morissette, a Francophone from a French-speaking town who picked up English through video games and The Simpsons. Morissette’s English debut, New Tab, was recently translated into French—making him wonder if he’s the first Francophone writer to be translated back into his mother tongue.

When I sat down with him in a Mile End cafe, Morissette told me that writing in his second language allowed him to let go of his past and give himself a “fresh coat of paint.” For the duration of his first year of writing in English, he allowed himself to experiment and make mistakes. “It was really good to teach myself the value of failing,” he says.

Gillian Lane-Mercier, who has written at length about English-Quebec literature and literary translation, echoed the flip side of this sentiment. The Anglophone Vancouver native first moved to Montreal from France four months before the 1980 referendum, as Highway 401 hosted a westward Anglo exodus. Lane-Mercier arrived in Quebec with a Parisian accent and little knowledge of the province’s turmoil, but eventually became an associate professor in McGill University’s French language and literature department. Eventually, out of political principle, she opted to communicate solely in French. “I didn’t feel comfortable anymore with Anglo-Canadians because of my experiences in France and Quebec,” she says.

In 2016, we’re far from the dark days of Montreal’s past, when English bosses occupied every powerful position; St. Laurent Boulevard, which used to separate the English in the west and the French in the east, has become a blurry, increasingly historical, divider. However, the idea of two solitudes persists, a stubborn part of our shared imagination. A few years back, Lane-Mercier headed a study about how many times the words “two solitudes” came up in Quebec newspapers. “It was in the thousands,” she says. Montrealers—or our media at least—are clearly attached to the lonely depiction of the second-largest city in Canada feeling much smaller than it is because individual Anglo and Franco Montrealers never quite see our whole cultural picture.

PERHAPS THE MOST SALIENT PROBLEM with the “two solitudes” struggle is that it’s in no way representative of Montreal’s contemporary linguistic and cultural reality. As a Franco-Catholic-Anglo-Jewish person, who could be a more representative microcosm of the city? A trilingual person, for starters. With nearly 20 percent of the city’s population speaking three languages, Montreal reportedly has the highest level of trilingualism in North America.

Of the more than 1.6 million Montrealers counted in the 2011 census, 536,560 identified a language other than French or English as their mother tongue. Francophone public figures—such as former Parti Québécois member Pierre Curzi, who claimed that in “less than twenty years, the number of people whose language of use is French will have fallen to 43 percent”—were outraged about the so-called decline of French in Montreal. But this point of view is skewed—even though nearly one-third of Montrealers have a non-official first language, just 13 percent of us can’t converse in French. On the other hand, only 350 claimed an Aboriginal language (primarily Cree and Inuktitut) as their mother tongue. On the provincial level, Cree comes in as the fifteenth most-spoken language (0.2 percent) and Inuktitut the twenty-third (0.14 percent). These numbers are much more troubling than any real or perceived decline in French, and Lane-Mercier asserts that we need to shift our linguistic focus. “Official bilingualism is a clear divide that doesn’t work anymore,” she says. “It’s embarrassing when considering Indigenous languages. We’re not taking stock of a phenomenon that goes way beyond a dual perception.”

WHILE THOSE OF US BORN along the province’s historical French-English divide shouldn’t stop looking inward, we also need to make space in modern Quebec for identities that mix and match linguistically, racially and culturally. We need to face the fact that the idea of the French-English divide has obscured racial and ethnic tensions that don’t fit the “two solitudes” narrative—Quebec has the highest rate of immigrant unemployment in Canada and consequently loses thousands of residents each year to interprovincial migration. In addition, UQAM sociologist Paul Eid recently discovered that corporate recruiters in Montreal are 72 percent more likely to call “white-sounding” names than African ones.

And yet, looking at our strengths, Quebeckers who grew up straddling the French-English divide are uniquely positioned to comprehend linguistic tensions, cultural translations, and the untranslatable middle ground between language and culture. Our multilingual culture doesn’t fit into a tidy Canadian mosaic where linguistic diversity is appreciated and celebrated from a distance, in English. Instead, we embrace a steaming melting pot of words—a base of Frenglish, with many Arabic, Spanish, Creole, Italian and Vietnamese inflections. While Montreal will never again be Canada’s economic centre, recognizing and respecting the scores of languages and cultures that make our city so vibrant will allow us to become its linguistic powerhouse.