Oui/No

  • Graphic Alex Manley

On Aug. 25, a Gazette article by former The Link news editor Christopher Curtis featured an interview that laid plain the feelings of many anglo Montrealers: Aside from the Liberals, “there aren’t any other options for English speakers in Quebec.”

Apart from the succinctness of the statement and how well it illustrates the province’s linguistic tensions in the lead-up to a general election, it’s also worth considering the phrase “English speakers in Quebec,” and what that suggests.

I don’t consider myself an English speaker in Quebec. I consider myself a Quebecer.

I’m an anglophone; my mother was born in England, and my father in Ontario. They met in Toronto, lived in France together for a year, and moved to Montreal in the ‘80s to start a family together. We spoke English at home; they sent me to an English public school, where I was placed in a French immersion stream.

The first time I ever met a real flesh-and-blood sovereigntist, however, was trick-or-treating at a house with a ‘Oui’ poster prominently displayed inside on Halloween 1995 in St-Henri, the day after money and the ethnic vote—as then-Parti Québécois leader Jacques Parizeau put it—kept Quebec a part of Canada.

If the anglo community seemed hermetically sealed when it came to the Yes/No politics of the referendum at the time, it seems to have largely remained that way in the decade and a half since.

Curtis’s article also makes it clear that—west of Guy St., candidates for the PQ, the Coalition avenir Québecois, Québec Solidaire, the Option Nationale et al. might as well phone it in.

When it comes to anglo Montrealers—“English speakers in Quebec”—the Liberal Party is the only option, because the Liberals are the one party who will promise outright not to hold a referendum on separation. There’s more to the city—and the province—however, than the west end of Montreal.

With a week to go in the campaign, the Liberals are down in the polls—five percentage points back from the PQ, and even one percentage point behind the upstart CAQ. It’s time to consider the very real possibility that Sept. 6 will usher in a government that is willing to consider—or excited to deliver—a referendum.

This might be as good a time as any for a wake-up call. Quebec is a French-speaking province. It is populated primarily by French-speaking people, its culture is primarily a French-speaking one, and its politicians are primarily francophones as well.

For too long, anglos in Quebec have sought to live separate from this reality, carving out red anglophone enclaves against the blue backdrop of the province.

Montreal has wonderful bars and restaurants, you can skate on Beaver Lake in the winter, the summers here are to die for and anglo Montrealers can get by just fine, without more than a ‘bonjour’ and a ‘merci’ to their name, providing they stick to the right neighbourhoods.

In the leaders’ debate on Aug. 19, when the talk turned on the language question, PQ head Pauline Marois decried the presence of businesses in the downtown core where customers couldn’t get served in French.

To some, that might seem like a fabrication at worst and a silly thing to harp on at best. But if there’s one thing I’ve found about English speaking people in Quebec over the years, it’s that they have a complete inability to put themselves in the shoes of their French-speaking counterparts. It’s, “They should stop complaining,” or, “They have a victim complex.”

Yet Quebec is the only French part of what can seem at times a largely monocultural and monolinguistic continent, and American/Canadian music, movies and businesses already run through the province like veins. Quebec is integrated in all the ways it doesn’t want to be.

A friend of mine recently posed this question on Facebook: Why do so many people think there’s only one way to be a true, good, legit Quebecer? I responded that there was no such thing as a good Quebecer, only good Quebecers. It is a synthesis of people and their differences that makes a society, not clones of a person.

But that answer holds true at the personal level, too. What is a true, good, legit Quebecer? Someone who enjoys Hollywood movies but also C.R.A.Z.Y., the Trailer Park Boys and Les amours imaginaires too.

A good Quebecer shouts herself hoarse when Bon Jovi comes on at karaoke, but also enjoys “Les étoiles filantes” by the Cowboys Fringants and “Montréal -40C” by Malajube. A good Quebecer disdains Céline Dion, but can do so fluently both in French and English, caline de bine.
Enfin, a good Quebecer is polyvalent.

This is a distinct society, but it’s a society distinct with difference and diversity. That’s something worth celebrating. On Sept. 4, Quebecers will head to the polls—but they should be voting with confidence, not out of fear.

Unless something drastic happens this week, the Liberals may well be unseated, and we may be facing a referendum vote again within a few years.
I find it hard to believe that Quebec could successfully work itself up into enough of a state to actually separate in the current economic climate. But maybe not far down the road, young anglophone children, for whom Montreal is the only home they’ve ever known, will be told that they do not belong here by the writings on the walls.

Mistrust and animus exists in every society, and neither side has a monopoly on a moral high ground. Both, for instance, largely leave out First Nations Quebecers from the discussion; they weren’t brought up once during the leaders’ debate.

But next week, we shouldn’t descend to the level of mistrust and animus; we shouldn’t try to retain a stranglehold on a province that is not ours to hold onto.

Instead, we should vote for the parties whose views align most closely with our own, whichever party that is, not the party willing to kowtow to the language politics of a divide born of decades of close-mindedness, class divides and arrogance.

To vote for the Liberals—or to stay at home—purely out of a shortsighted desire for a malfunctioning linguistic status quo does a disservice to all Quebecers.

There are more issues at stake here than the spectre of a future referendum. The parties have plans for the environment, for the poor, for the rich, for the cost of university tuition, and if there’s one thing that transcends language politics—that’s the same in both French and English—it’s numbers.

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