Saturday, April 6, 2013


MONTREAL - I recently spent the night in an oasis of language peace, far from the feuds of Bill 14, Pastagate, quibbling language inspectors, fuming angryphones, exhausted otherphones — and debates over whether to say "Bonjour hi," or just use sign language.

No, I wasn't in Ontario – I was in the Quartier Latin near lower St. Denis St., usually student protest headquarters. But on this night it was home to a monthly discussion group called "Génération d'idees" that brings together young people in their 20 and 30-somethings.

In recent months they've "brainstormed" about everything from the Charbonneau hearings to Quebec's justice system and the student strikes. But now they'd gathered to discuss recent language tensions — and I was one of the guests.

There were about 45 people, mainly francophones with a smattering of anglos — ranging from grad students and community workers to lawyers and civil servants. It was a window into a young Quebec we don't often hear from — but should.

The crowd broke into seven small discussion tables that spoke mostly French but lots of English too. Some groups switched to English halfway through to be fair to anglos at their table.

Eventually each group proposed their own ideas for cooling language tensions — though many overlapped and surprised me.

Pretty much everyone favoured more bilingual schools, starting at a young age. "That's when children learn languages easily," said a female civil servant, speaking English with a heavy French accent.

I told her (in French) this was the nightmare of many long time nationalists who feel if English and French students mix, English will always dominate.

"That's stupid," she said in English. "I'm a strong nationalist but I don't see my language as handicapped. If a class has 20 English students and 20 French then we'll learn to speak 50 per cent of each language … why should English dominate? That's old-fashioned thinking."

The young anglos (and allos) were all bilingual and proud to live in a French city. But they were upset by recent language tensions, "when we hear too much from people at the extremes."

Some francophones talked of frustrating experiences where they couldn't easily get served in French — mainly in the West End by recent immigrants who struggled to speak French. But unlike our government they didn't think the answer was tougher language laws — just more language courses and more patience by everyone. Said one woman:

"We need less punishment and more encouragement if we want to make newcomers love French — not resent it."

Almost every table suggested exchange programs between anglos and francos to help us understand each other better …. The more we meet and talk, the more we realize we're similar. "

They also wanted exchanges between Montreal and the regions "so they can see we aren't the demon they imagine. Montreal is great when you're living in it — not just reading about it in the paper."

Over and over I heard that language tensions were mostly the fault of politicians with agendas to divide us — and media dramatizing occasional negative incidents to attract viewers.

"Why do we always hear about what separates us — not what we have in common," said one 25-year old anglo student.

"Let's stress the positive parts of our city, not the negative," said a bearded francophone man in his early 30s. "We don't show enough pride in the way we live together bilingually in a French city. It's unique."

Asked for linguistic role models they surprised me again by naming bilingual comic Sugar Sammy and Jack Layton, who was revered by all — because "he proved you don't have to be French to care about French."

Many people wanted more films like Bon Cop, Bad Cop that mix French and English languages and actors. They want more mixing of languages on TV and more anglos on French TV playing ordinary roles — "not just anglo stereotypes."

The night's discussion didn't accomplish anything, but it made me feel good. It reflected the city I experience in our streets, cafés and workplaces — not the one I hear about in news and politics lately.

Listening to these smart, compassionate, open-minded, bilingual young people in both languages reminded me of my Montreal and why I'm glad to live here.

It also reminded me that I've only had one bad personal experience with a francophone in my whole life. That was when I was called a "maudit anglais" and beaten up — at age 12 - by a 14-year-old Tomgirl named Lizette, who stole my bike.

She was the only francophone I've ever had a confrontation with despite decades of hearing about "language wars" in the news. It's just proof of my old rule — English and French relations in Montreal work great in practice, but not in theory.

So we just have to keep practicing till we get them right.


We always hear the voices of the extremists. Of course rational people want to live in an open society. But the majority are silent. We need to make them aware of reality and persuade them to take responsibility by speaking up. Apart from organized efforts, I urge everyone to talk to your neighbours in everyday situations. I talk to taxi drivers. I talk to people in line-ups. Wherever people meet people, there is an opportunity to engage them in civil conversation. In that way, we learn that we are all human and we all want to live in peace with justice for everyone. Don't let the extremists control the minds of the majority.
Decades ago, I was a director of The Committee For Neutral Schools founded and presided over by Dr. Henry Morgenthaler. Our purpose was to see bilingual schools across Canada. I was interviewed on radio and TV at the time, trying to get everyone to see the logic. All students across Canada would learn English and French together in "Neutral Schools". Courses could be divided using English for some subjects and French for others. Kids would be working side by side. Playing side by side. They would make friendships that might last into adulthood. A Canada living in peace and harmony. But we could not stop extremists, English and French, from blocking our plans. So decades later, we see the battles continuing, wasting time and resources and turning people against each other. Oy Canada ! Oy Quebek ! What a waste !
Phyllis Carter


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