Speak some French, s.v.p.!

Posted 08.14.10

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | There are a few who write to the Journal regularly complaining about linguistic inequalities and prejudices here. They endorse conspiracy theories and versions of history rare outside the Balkans; they have lots of blame for language suppression, and while most Pontiacers see the Journal as a force for unity, these people see it as the thin edge of "anglicization" -- because it is bilingual.

They don't know that before the Journal, there was no Pontiac-wide French-language newspaper, and yet they insist they understand the region enough to make their sweeping accusations. It is small-minded to say no French-language media is preferable to French in a bilingual format.

But there is an important reality in what they claim. Our interest should be in their observations, not in their personal political convictions.

Likewise, the subject of Pontiac's place within Quebec and of Pontiac anglophones' sense of belonging to Quebec can also be separated from the usual theorizing about Quebec's future.

De-link the personal, the small stuff (anecdotes, insults), and also discard the ideology. Whether of not the province is eventually sovereign is not closely related to Pontiac's place within today's Quebec society.

This de-linking from the small and the grandiose makes the question much less delicate, and much less melodramatic. We can actually talk about our feelings of belonging -- we anglos -- in interesting ways.

Most important is our belief that bilingualism is one of our region's strongest assets. Outaouais' bilingualism has a natural flow as people switch between English and French.

We are a borderland between two strong cultures, so there is inter-penetration, patois, plus plenty of academic prattling about linguistic purity. Bilingualism should create a dynamism that is absent in so many other regions. This flexibility and openness should stimulate every part of Pontiac society.

But it doesn't.

We've been unable to take advantage of this natural benefit. One big reason is our "lopsided bilingualism" -- the other guys do the work; they learn the second language, not us. We could speak a few words in French.

Pontiac's reputation for "anglo apathy" sees us stuck in our habits, our blinders on. Skilled people are hesitant to move here (doctors, for example) because of our English-only environment. Businesses, the same. A few businesses or doctors who don't move here can be devastating for our fragile economy.

Our anglo apathy, or hypocrisy, breeds bad faith deep within us. It puts a chip on our shoulders, which influences everything from personal and family lives to our ability to work with the larger, majority society.

It harms our kids. They are not as open to learning the second language, or our province's current affairs and its history, because we adults aren't open. Our attitudes limit their opportunities.

We English-speakers are bold to insist on our own services -- schools, cegeps, universities and health, at least -- but then we pay only lip service to bilingualism and to the larger society we live in.

For us to celebrate Quebec's interesting culture, language, and political realities is to celebrate… ourselves. We are a part of all this. Our ancestors were creators of Quebec. My father's family was among those who dug the Lachine canal (straight out of Ireland). That's Quebec history, and we should be proud of our part. Who wants to be immersed in a majority, anyway? What comfort does drowning -- loss of individuality -- give?

Bilingualism creates dynamism. Multi-culturalism fosters pride and self-respect. This is what the Pontiac offers. Why aren't we taking up Pontiac's incredible offer?

Copyright © 2010 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/08.10