BY ROBERT SCHRYER - I remember something vividly from the day of the 1980 referendum. I and other sixth-graders were at our lockers at our French school, going up to each other in speed-dating fashion to ask if our parents were voting Yes or No that night. We weren’t hard-nosed interrogators; as 11-year-olds, the subject hardly held our interest.
But we knew this day was important, that tonight’s vote was the culmination of months of political discussion among the grown-ups. To us kids it represented many months of boring yet occasionally tension-filled talk that seemed to divide people. Even families.
We heard of couples separating because of it. Talk of separation was causing separation. As children, we couldn’t understand why grown-ups would do this to each other.
Except that I knew I was firmly in the No camp. My father, an RCMP officer, was profoundly committed to Canada, Quebec included. So I was taken aback by the Yes responses I got at those lockers. While a No produced an immediate sense of kinship with the responder, a Yes made me recoil incredulously. If No was the right answer, then Yes had to be wrong.
I didn’t blame the Yes kids for what was obviously, as in my case, a parental disposition about which we hadn’t been consulted, but their answers did manage to bring some of the reality of separation down to the level of an 11-year-old, revealing that divisions we had nothing to do with or barely understood existed between us.
My father was a bilingual French-Canadian brought up in a “pure laine” Quebec household, my mother an Austrian immigrant who’d come to Quebec speaking only German and broken English. By romantic fate, they met at a dance, flirting in the language that was common to both – English – and that, by default, became my brother’s first language and mine.
But federalist as my father was, he was a proud French Quebecer who often insisted we speak to him in French. And while it wasn’t law then, we attended French school to preserve our roots and immerse ourselves in our province’s dominant culture. Going to French school was one of my father’s greatest gifts to me, conferring on me an ability that many of my English and French friends didn’t have.
As a kind of Franglo, I flitted seamlessly between cultures, enjoying the riches of both. I went to French Jour de l’an and English Thanksgiving. Rocked to Plume Latraverse and Elvis Costello. Courted French girls and English ones. I felt universally accepted. My world was expansive; my choices felt limitless. Compared to that, I considered being unilingual like being stuck behind a wall you couldn’t see over.
The 1995 referendum was a much more serious affair for me. I was now a grown-up and knew what was at stake. And I had a knot in my stomach that whole day.
That evening, some friends and I held ground at The Mad Hatter on Metcalfe St., killing our nerves with pitchers of beer as the vote count waffled between Yes and No on the TV. The pub was packed with Canadians flown in from all over the country – a last-ditch federally backed show of strength in Canadian solidarity. That night felt like one big Hail Mary as my life hung in the balance. Quebec was my home, and it felt like the ground was shaking under it.
Now, every time the subject of English or French is brought up – often by politicians and the media – to point a finger at our dissimilarity, to raise that wall instead of trying to break it down, I get that knot in my stomach like on that day at The Mad Hatter, and I can feel the ground shake just a little. I think: If only we could sit together over some beers we’d discover how alike we are, and we could work things out.
That Quebec is a French province is a given. It’s a fact written in stone in the Quebec charter. And the Canadian constitution recognizes the French, the first Europeans to settle here permanently, as one of the founding peoples of Canada.
That the French want a place where they can function and be served in the language of their ancestors while surviving in the face of mass Englishness seems only natural.
Shortly after the last referendum, I married a French Quebec woman. We brought two children into this province who each appropriated a different first language. Still blissfully unaware of our society’s linguistic divisions, neither has conducted the Yes-and-No survey at their school lockers, but that could change.
Language shouldn’t polarize us. It shouldn’t limit our perspective to one side of a wall. By its very nature, language is meant to foster dialogue. It should be used to reach out and bring us closer together.
Then we all might feel a little more accepted, and maybe I’ll get fewer of those knots in my stomach.Robert Schryerworks in public relations for a Montreal company and lives in Brossard.
Language shouldn’t polarize us
I recall the divisiveness of the referendums, and think: if only we could sit together over some beers, we’d discover how alike we are