Monday, July 2, 2012

The Outsiders: Anglos In Quebec

A View From Quebec

I was an outsider... but I was also sympathetic with people that were struggling to get up, because I struggled to get up.
Elia Kazan

Lionel-Adolphe Groux [1878-1967 ]: A Roman Catholic priest, historian and nationalist, Groux is considered the "Father of Quebec Nationalism." Although he and his writings are largely ignored, his spirit hovers over the province. A metro station and a college bear his name.

I have resisted writing about Quebec, the province in which I was raised, chiefly because so many others have written about its peculiarities in the past in a far better way. One of my favourite pieces is by Mordecai Richler [1931-2001] in his famous 25-page New Yorker article ("Inside/Outside," September 23, 1991), which drew the ire of Quebec nationalists, who found nothing funny or amusing in the piece. They found less amusing his 277-page book, Oh! Canada Oh! Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Countrywhich he published a year later, in 1992. That's a shame, since laughter is always good therapy.

Now, every geographical region and major religion has some particularities or a sense of the peculiar, and it doesn't have to have a pejorative sense, unless you feel threatened and without hope. After all, haven't the Jewish People been feeling threats and yet been laughing at themselves for thousands of years? Have they not survived? Have they not thrived?.

Here in Quebec, a working democracy with a $300-billion economy, French language and culture becomes the barrier to acceptance. Such distinctions show that 30 years later not much has changed, except much of the distrust between the French-speaking majority and the English-speaking minority is bubbling below the surface. Articles, chiefly in the French-language media, attest to the perception that Quebec and its largest city, Montreal, is just not French enough [see herehere & here]. 

If you are reading this piece from outside Quebec and Canada, which is likely given that is where most of my readers reside, you might be perplexed. For many outsiders, it seems foolish to argue about language, notably to such extremes and notably in Europe, where many persons speak two, three, four languages. Unless you are born here, as I have been, or at least have gone to school here during one's formative years, it is hard to really understand the sense of things. To understand why things are the way they are, and what are its hot-button issues. First of all, language is always an important issue for reasons that will soon be clear, if you have the patience to read further. It might hide in the background, it might take second place to the economy or work, but it eventually surfaces and often in a nasty way as a divisive issue that separates people.

Language in Quebec is politicized like no other place I know. Persons are immediately separated into distinct groups by what language they speak at home. The French majority are called Francophones; the English minority Anglophones; and the immigrants whose mother tongue is neither, Allophones. The designation is given by the person's mother tongue, the predominant if not first language spoken at home. Once a person fits within that particular linguistic designation, he or she forever remains in it, no matter the ability in the other official language of Canada. It is very difficult to switch designations, and although there has been many attempts to reduce linguistic tensions, they exist, both overtly and in more subtle forms. They exist because here in Quebec, they have forever been politicized. Is it possible that some groups benefit from the continuing tension? To distract from more-important matters? I wonder. 

Fete Nationale for Everyone?

Take for example a public holiday in Quebec. On June 24th, Francophones (or les Québécois) celebrate a holiday called Fete Nationale (National Holiday) replete with symbols of French-Canadian history. Absent from the holiday are any symbols of English Canada, despite their historical contribution to building the province (i.e., Scottish, Irish and English)—attesting to its unimportance in the minds of the festival organizers. It's noteworthy that Quebec is not a nation, but a large percentage of the French majority, the francophones and some allophones, want it to be, having a desire to secede from Canada. The sad thing is that many Canadians would be happy to see it go alone—tired of its constant demands for special privilege.

Before its new secular name, June 24th was called Saint Jean Baptiste Day, in honour of the biblical figure, John the Baptist, who was a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth—both being Jews. I have always wondered if the francophones celebrating this day—often with parties, and all such activities that mark such occasions, including music, drinking and fireworks—were in any way aware their patron saint was a Jew. Probably not, and if they did, they would claim that he later became a Christian, befitting a symbol of Quebec. But this religious name for a holiday was at a time when the Catholic Church held sway and moral authority in Quebec.

Now, that is no longer the case, and hasn't been the 1960s and the "revolution" that transformed Quebec into a non-Christian society with its "Quiet Revolution"— a rejection of its past rural and religious values. But that doesn't mean people here don't have faith. They do, but of a particular secular kind that has everything to do with French language, French culture and Les Canadiens, the professional hockey team.

What has resulted in the last 40 years—since Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa made French the only official language in Quebec with Bill 22 (in 1974) and three years later the Parti Québécois with Bill 101 (in 1977) legislated more stringent language laws— has not only been an aggrandizement of the French language and culture, which many can sympathize with, but an equal if not disastrous reduction of the once-thriving English language and culture. (It is important to note that English and French form the two founding peoples of Canada.) So, the calculation has been made in the political corridors of Quebec City that the French culture can only survive and thrive if the English one is diminished and eventually extinguished. Such thinking is predominant here and hard to change, and is similar to what happens to a person under a siege mentality.

Some noteworthy facts from Statistics Canada (2006):
  • Since 1971/1972, 528,100 more people left the province of Quebec than entered it, the largest net loss of any province or territory resulting from inter-provincial migration.
  • The change over time in the age structure of the Anglophone population of Quebec reflects the ageing of the population, and it results from the combined effect of a fertility rate below the replacement level and of a sizable negative net migration, particularly during the 1970s, benefiting other provinces, especially Ontario.
  • A brief analysis of 2006 Census data reveals that Anglophones in Quebec are proportionally more likely than Francophones to work in certain sectors, such as professional, scientific and technical services, administrative and management services, or wholesale trade.
Along with the loss of hundreds of thousands of persons—the English Exodus—has been a loss of brain-power, sometimes called human capital, entrepreneurial spirit and money. The language laws, in their restrictions of English education of children, of English usage in the workplace and of English communication of signs, to name three predominant areas, has translated to an economic loss of incalculable proportions for the province—contributing to its ballooning debt of $183.8 billion, or 55% of GDP. To put it simply, restrictive laws never act as an encouraging sign to attract business investment.

The Myth of Origins

How did we end up here? Again, we need some clarification; we need to know history. To see better, to gain some understanding we have to go to the period in the 1930s when nationalism was predominant in European and North American intellectual circles. Chief among such thinkers in French-Canadian circles was Lionel Groux [1878-1967], a priest who taught history at the University of Montreal from 1915 to 1949, and whom many call Quebec's spiritual leader.

Groux's writings were both racist, nationalist and inflammatory, focusing on the necessity to maintain a purity of the French people (pure laine, or pure wool), an imprecise term designating French-speaking Catholics who can trace their lineage to many generations in Quebec, in marked contrast to the newly arrived immigrants and other ethnic minorities—the Jew being the most undesirable "Other" in their traits and beliefs. Hence the birth of the myth of origin. In The Traitor and The Jew: Anti-Semitism and Extremist Right-Wing Nationalism in Quebec From 1929 to 1939 (published in French in 1992; English trans, 1993), Esther Deslisle, a political scientist, clarifies what such myth means:
Interwoven with the myth of origin, the ideological definition of the French Canadian / Québécois has not yet lost its appeal. For some, everything must be judged by the benchmark of ethnicity. There are those who believe that some subjects of research are more "Jewish" than "Québécois." To a journalist who informed me that the writer Mordecai Richler was hardly representative of his community, I asked if I was representative of mine or if she herself could have that pretension. Others, more pernicious, thought that Richler was, on the contrary, so able a spokesman for the anglophones and/or the Jews of the province that they demanded the leaders of the two groups publicly dissociate themselves from his 1992 book Oh! Canada Oh! Quebec: requiem for a divided country. (31)
Not surprisingly, Dr. Deslisle was attacked for her work, for revealing Quebec's shameful intellectual past and its history of racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism common to its intellectual leaders. Deslisle was branded a traitor, if not worse, by the forces that were desperately trying to protect Quebec from outside influences. And language becomes the barrier against the outside invasion of barbarians, notably from America. It's part of an Utopian vision. [see here a fine review of Denys Arcand's  2003 film, "The Barbarian Invasions."]

Leading the charge to protect Quebec from outside influences is the Parti Québécois, whose name is not accidental; if names mean anything, then the Parti Québécois is a party who has defined itself as representing and defending the interests of Québécois, laden with all its nationalistic and tribal meanings. This need "to protect the French language" as part of an Utopian vision, extends to all areas of life here, including the language of signs, whether outdoor or indoor, which must be predominantly and always superiorly in the French language. There are government employees—"the language police" who ensure that these strict language requirements are met; and they can always rely on like-minded citizens to file complaints against businesses that contravene the law. (Yes, I know that Stalinist Russia relied on snitches, creating a climate of fear; it works.) Highways signs are not exempt, even if it reduces public safety. In such matters, it really does matter.

Quebec & Israel

Now, contrast two places with similar populations of about 7.8 million: Quebec and the State of Israel. The latter has highways signs in three languages [see here]: Hebrew, English and Arabic. Although Israel is in a sea of Arabic, and has hostile neighbours, too, it still has signs in Arabic, because it know that a percentage of the population speak only Arabic. In fact, Israel has two official languages: Hebrew and Arabic.

My name, ethnicity, choice of language and education marks me as an outsider in many respects. My English education coupled with my Jewish ethnicity in the eyes of the French-Catholic majority (in name only) has always made me  an outsider, whether or not I wanted it to be. I had little choice in the matter. It is not enough to speak French, which I do well enough, but it is more important here on what your last name (or nom famille ) is, and whether it sounds French or other (les autres).

No, I am not making this up. here is an article by Marion Scott in Global Montreal, a TV news station:
If you think your ethnic-sounding last name is preventing you from finding a job in Quebec, you may be right.
Candidates called Tremblay or Morin are 64 per cent more likely to get an interview than someone with the same qualifications whose name is Ben Amin or Traoré, according to a study released Tuesday by the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission.
A research assistant applied for 581 jobs from December 2010 to May 2011 under false names, half of them foreign-sounding and the other half typically francophone Québécois. Both types of fictional job-seekers had equivalent qualifications and had been educated in Quebec.
In due time, I am sure, the political leaders, ensemble, will eventually condemn such findings, even display (mock) shock and outrage, saying such does not reflect the values of Québécois society. Really? Are they ignorant of their actions? When the English history of Quebec's largest city — Montreal — has been eradicated in defense of a Utopian vision, one has a right to question motives and actions; even long-standing English street names (e.g., Craig, Dorchester, St. James) have been changed to French ones—history has to be rewritten to conform to the founding myth. The myth of French superiority. Shades of authoritarian thinking? Inferiority thinking? Whatever the case, many of us living here are not surprised by such findings, since they reflect the reality on the ground. The reality of workplaces. The reality of cafés. The reality of restaurants. The reality of street festivals. The reality of government offices. The reality of streets and street signs. C'est la vie, ici. Gallic shrug.

The result of state-sanctioned discrimination is a loss on both sides of the French-English divide: for employers a loss of educated employees; and for English-speaking persons a loss of a good job. For the English an opportunity to fit in and contribute to Quebec society; and for the French an opportunity to both teach and learn from their English counterparts. The need to protect the French language has been both a drain and a drag on the economy, an expected outcome when you have such restrictive laws. Imagine what Montreal could be if language were not a political issue? If persons could comfortably speak any language they wanted? If anyone could transact and conduct business in any language, allowing the marketplace to determine such things, and not government intervention and legislation?

The French Face of Quebec

For now, that seems out of the question. Yet, few win under such discriminatory practices, legalized in Quebec under its various laws "to keep the face of Quebec French." Now, not all French-speaking persons agree with this sentiment—i.e., the necessity to legislate English out of existence in order to keep Quebec French—but so few speak out against its discriminatory practices; one of the few remaining taboos in Quebec.

As a background, consider some important figures, which have essentially remained the same for years from Statistics Canada:
  • 13.4%: percentage of Anglophones in Quebec;
  • 2.8%: percentage of Anglophones in the Quebec Civil service;
  • 13: number of Anglophones who have been mayor of Montreal since 1833;
  • 0: number of Anglophones who have been mayor of Montreal since 1912;
  • 0: number of Anglophones who head any political party (municipal or provincial) in Quebec.
Such numbers give a broad view of life here, but they don't explain everything as clearly as personal experience. There's more to the everyday reality on how language plays itself here. In Montreal, a city in which almost 50% of its inhabitants speak English, you would be hard-pressed to find a bus driver, a police officer, a municipal employee who is not primarily French speaking (i.e, old-stock Québécois) and who does not show ill will, irritability, unpleasantness when addressed in English. Then there are significant others who are French nationalists and speaking English is akin to consorting with the enemy. Back to Lionel Groulx, the Father of French nationalism. The Traitor. You get the picture. Discrimination is acceptable and encouraged if it furthers the cause. Push English to the margins. Make them (Les autres) outsiders.

In Quebec, as is common with those with nationalistic tendencies, history has been filtered and rewritten to accommodate The Myth of Lionel Groulx, even if most people haven't read him or know who he is. His spirit hovers over the province. Now, the English minority, or at least its self-proclaimed leaders warn about stirring up the language wars, saying it's better left alone. 

The Outsider Looking In

Persons who (rightly) complain about the unfairness, the racism, the nationalism in Quebec are called "angryphones" by many in the English-language media and its institutions, who fear loss of position and status, having already lost too many other things. Perhaps their fears are well founded. After all, things could get hot; things could get worse. It's like the saying about "death of a thousand cuts" and the creeping normalcy of accepting objectionable practices. It's also true that such "language wars," or skirmishes are tiring, since (partial and artificial) resolution often translates to loss of dignity. And not to understanding. 

Such reminds me of what Kenneth Trachtenberg, a specialist in Russian studies in search of meaning, said in Saul Bellow's 1987 novel, More Die of Heartbreak:
The Jews, insofar as they had lived in isolation within their ancestral code, had done that for millennia, back into the fossil ages. But then they began to come voluntarily into the present epoch, and later they were forcibly dragged into modern history, riding later into it by the millions in cattle cars, thus becoming aware (those who had the time to be aware) that for them there was no genteel option to declare that they stood clear of contemporary civilization. (182)
Standing Clear. Seeing in: Such are one of the few benefits of being an outsider. This reminds me of a Jewish joke, which Mordecai Richler, another gifted writer and observer of the human condition, told in front of a packed house at McGill University, that old bastion of Anglo power and elitism, a few years before his death. I was in the audience, so I remember it well:
Don't Cause Trouble
Three Jews were about to be executed, and they were lined up in front of a firing squad. The sergeant in charge asks each Jew whether or not he wants a blindfold. "Yes," says the first Jew, in a resigned tone. "OK," says the second Jew, bracing himself to his grim fate. "And what about you?" he enquires of the third Jew. "No," says the third Jew. At this, the second Jew leans over to the third one and says: "Listen, Moshe, take a blindfold. Don't make trouble."
For many, that is the right response. This, despite being dragged into it, often against our better instincts.