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Montreal: Francais Without the French November 9, 2011

Posted by homolog88 in Travel Dispatches.
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As a rabid Francophile, I was prepared to love Montreal, the largest French-speaking city in the Western hemisphere. And, indeed, I did love Montreal. I loved the French signs, the French food, the French fries, and the language with its weird Quebecois twang. But I was also bemused by the Quebecois’ insistence on thrumming the same old historical complaints. I was in Montreal for a film festival, not paying a lot of attention to the news, but during my five days there, I read an opinion piece in a free francophone daily about how the sovereignty movement needs to be rallied out of its dangerous torpor. Local French television news featured a segment about how certain shopkeepers were being fined because the French lettering of their bilingual signs were not twice the size of their English counterparts. I tuned idly into a TV roundtable discussion under the rubric “La France a-t-elle nous abandonné?” (“Has France abandoned us?”) wherein the francophone participants made bitter reference to “the conquest”—that is, the 1763 acquisition by England of New France under the Treaty of Paris. (The treaty brought to an end the first global conflict now known by historians as the Seven Years War. Our section of it was the French and Indian War.)

Nationalist graffiti

Has France abandoned us? Well, yes . . . two and a half centuries ago. In spite of de Gaulle’s incendiary battle cry, “Vive le Québec libre!,” the Quebecois are Canadians and do pretty well by it. The French language predominates and is not going anywhere. Although a pleasant fiction in the English-speaking provinces, the Official Languages Act declared Canada to be a bilingual nation and required the use of both languages in all federal operations. One well-known bon mot on the subject says that the Quebecois want an independent Quebec within a strong Canada. Montreal itself is wealthy, well-ordered and the most genuinely bilingual city I’ve encountered. Everyone there speaks both languages to some degree. Still many of the Quebecois nurse their linguistic and historical grudge. One could make comparisons to the ideology of the post-Civil War South with its delusional attachment to The Noble Lost Cause (like slavery was so great), except that the South finally moved on.

Montreal skyline

Also, language and cuisine aside, Montreal isn’t that different from Toronto and Vancouver. The downtown streets are just as rectilinear; the skyscrapers look the same; the social services and public transportation systems are just as efficient. Montreal possesses some historical anomalies, such well-known tourist attractions as the Old City (not so rectilinear) and the myriad of Catholic churches that were lavishly decorated in part to one-up the more austere Protestant houses of worship frequented by the Anglophones.

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