Closeup/The Nation

When worlds collide

Even in two solitudes, youth will find a way

David Thomas June 26 1978
Closeup/The Nation

When worlds collide

Even in two solitudes, youth will find a way

David Thomas June 26 1978

When worlds collide

Even in two solitudes, youth will find a way

Closeup/The Nation

David Thomas

Nine teen-agers and a case of beer pressed into an overpowered car squealing off the asphalt in Bellechasse County is not quite as typically “québécois” as maple syrup. But, certainly, the hazards of Quebec’s rural highways are folkloric. So when the wheels of the aging Pontiac sped straight ahead as the roadway bent into a curve, the tightly packed mixture of Québécois and British Columbians inside experienced an authentic, if perilous, cultural exchange. Bilingual shrieking as the airborne vehicle snapped through a line of trees to finish scrappé in the dark was not the sort of cultural experience anticipated by their parents and chaperones.

But the students, saved from serious damage by the mutual cushioning of their resilient young bodies, may well have the accident to thank for rescuing their exchange trip from failure. Complicity to keep the mishap secret was certainly part of the puzzling chemistry that would turn a cold encounter into a passionate contact.

Until then, there had been nothing to unite the 30 visiting suburbanites from Surrey and their country hosts in Saint-Anselme, a deep-rooted farming village tucked into the smooth folds of the Etchemin River valley, 30 miles south of Quebec City. An exchange designed to favor understanding had so far provoked more division than comprehension.

Most of the Surreyites were female, Farrah-curled and Clearasiled creatures in mid-transition to womanhood. They had arrived five days earlier as the May sun blotted up the last tardy patches of a hard winter’s snow. At the same time, thousands of other young Canadians were, like them, temporarily sharing provinces and families through the federal government’s Open House Canada, a $6.5-million effort to foster national unity. By July 1, exchanges for 15,000 students from 14 to 22 years of age will have been subsidized this year. B.C. is involved in more exchanges than any other province, apparently because British Columbians are eager to relieve their sentiment of isolation and, of

course, because the West Coast lures other Canadians like a domestic California.

A clash was in the making as the Air Canada jet docked at the Quebec City terminal to discharge the contingent from Surrey’s Princess Margaret Senior Secondary School. Their principal chaperone was expecting, and wanted, a jolt: “We want them to suffer a culture shock,” said Frank Muir, anthropology teacher and, for 24

years in China and Japan, missionary. “They must learn to take the leap and speak French. The other part of the shock is political. We want our kids to have a much healthier attitude toward separatism and Quebec’s passion for its culture.” Although only partial success could be claimed at the close of the week-long sojourn in Quebec, the shock, at least, was immediate. It struck the B.C. students midway between their aircraft and the terminal building. Their exchange “twins,” impatient with waiting, sent up a spontaneous cheer of welcome that stunned the arriving travellers to a halt. They tightened into a wary knot on the tarmac to await and follow their chaperones like timorous jungle porters behind their

bwana. Muddled by shyness, three time zones of jet lag and the excited sounds of an unfamiliar language, the troop from Surrey was suddenly thrust into a writhing welcome as they were sorted out by the Québécois twin with whom each had been matched by mail. Embarrassed grins showed the Surreyites were unprepared for deep-end immersion in a region where just about the only bridgehead gained by federal bilingualism is the airport public-address system. In the Quebec City region, anyone heard speaking English is reflexively treated as an American tourist, and probably is. The first night away from their friends, alone with the families with which they would eat and sleep for the next seven days, brought the profound realization to nearly all the young British Columbians that French is not only a language, but the only language of most Québécois. Especially in Saint-Anselme. “I told our kids the wrong thing,” confessed chaperone Sylvia Wilson. “I told them the Quebec kids would all speak English but that we should insist that they speak French.”

By the next morning, the opposite truth had the Surrey students tottering between giddiness and panic, exhibiting the symptoms of Alvin Toffler’s definition of culture shock: “. . . the effect that immersion in a strange culture has on the unprepared visitor. It causes a breakdown in communications, a misreading of reality and an inability to cope.”

Assembled in a classroom of Saint-Anselme’s regional high school, the two groups separated like repelling magnets, the Québécois in the first rows and the disoriented visitors clustered together at the back. They were about to have the law laid down by Marcel Morin, organizer at the Quebec end of the exchange and a committed, boosterish figure who leads SaintAnselme’s citizens’ campaign to build a hockey arena. Morin is a federalist. And, like many federalist Québécois, he believes the condition for Canada’s survival as one country is the consecration of Que-

bec as a unilingual, French-speaking territory. To some of the B.C. students, Morin’s concurrent profession of loyalty to Canada and his insistence on Quebec’s uniqueness seemed uncomfortably contradictory. There was no appeal for understanding or sympathy. Just the straight goods: “If you want to speak English,” Morin told them, “you should go to a country that’s Englishspeaking, like Ontario. In Quebec, we never speak English. We live in French, we work in French and we dream in French. I know some of you think something is wrong with people who don’t speak English, but when we speak English we are not what we really are. Ours is not the same culture and our history is completely different from yours—but we still want to be part of the same country from ocean to ocean, OK, that’s all for English. From now on, we will speak only French and if you need help, ask your twin.”

Morin’s language ordinance was an instant flop. Like the noble experiment of official bilingualism, it ignored a crucial reality: Few English-Canadians speak French and not many others want to. Seventeenyear-old Norma Nickel had even been dissuaded from absorbing the language. “My French teacher told me not to start speaking French like the French-Canadians. I think that’s stupid. I’m going to meet a lot more French-Canadians than French from anywhere else.” Ignoring her

teacher’s admonition and lucky to be paired with ebullient and unilingual Sylvie Forgues, Norma was one of only half a dozen of the 30 B.C.ers to jump into French, clutching dictionaries and phrase books like water wings. Most of her friends hung back, coagulating together and risking not even the simplest bonjour to close the gap.

There was no hiding the disappointment of the Saint-Anselme hosts. The Quebec teen-agers had been enjoined to ease the English-speaking visitors through their fear of French and had even prepared for the emotional tension in encounter sessions. But it seemed the B.C.ers weren’t interested and, as the distance widened with the passing days, the embarrassment of the B.C. chaperones became tinged with anger. “The B.C. kids come here thinking they’re superior. That’s part of the problem,” said Muir. Sylvia Wilson blamed the mood back home: “Their parents have very poor, very intolerant attitudes.”

Generosity was conspicuously absent from the opinions some of the B.C.ers expressed about their Quebec twins. “They’re not as much fun. They’re more conservative. They’re not as crazy as we are,” remarked Vivian Vander Zalm, whose uncle, B.C. Minister of Human Resources Bill Vander Zalm, won national notoriety by saying he was fed up with French on cereal boxes and would wel-

come separation as a way to cut “the number of transients coming to B.C. from Quebec and seeking welfare.” His niece aired her own distaste for the challenge of two languages: “Nobody speaks English in the family where I am so it’s pretty boring for me.”

The criticism wasn’t one-sided, of course; the Quebec kids, too, sometimes found the others dull. “They spend half their lives in the bathroom,” griped France

Tavara as a covey of B.C. girls retreated to reposition hair and dig into their assortment of colored powders and pastes. The growth of friendship was slowed, typically, by the reservations and intolerance of youth.

Relations between the two groups descended to a low reminiscent of Lord Dur-

ham’s remarks, written in 1839, on “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.” Then a miracle occurred.

Its manifestation was soft on the morning following the car accident, with just two days left before the visitors were to return home to await the arrival, a week later, of the Saint-Anselme students. The chaperones, of course, were oblivious to the late-night crash as its victims slipped discreetly off to hospital for lip stitching and bone taping. Whispered news of the mishap spread like a virus, drawing the members of both groups into a conspiracy of silence to protect against the wrath and prying queries of the adults. Common ground was found.

The B.C.ers began sticking by their twins and, piled into their yellow bus for an afternoon of field tripping, untiring young voices broke into a singsong. At first, the songs alternated between French and English, one group singing, the other listening without comprehending. But then somebody hit on, what else, Alouette, and the volume amplified by two. Fear was gone from their eyes and the differences, once intimidating, became fascinating.

Sixteen-year-old Carol McCauley even managed to discern cultural difference at that tribute to homogeneity, McDonald’s. “I really like Quebec Big Macs,” Carol managed between swallows of an oozing packet of meat, bread and arcane sauces.

“At home there’s only one cheese, here there’s two.”

Attachments were building, too, between the visitors and their foster families. The Surreyites remarked that the Quebec homes were generally cleaner than their own but what surprised most was that, in Saint-Anselme, children and parents eat together at fixed mealtimes, something they said is rare back home. The precociously independent suburbanites were being drawn into old-fashioned, FrenchCanadian nuclear families. And loving it.

Old hands with exchange visits recognize the phenomenon, though with most the transition from apprehension to emotional bonding begins much sooner than it did with the Surrey and Saint-Anselme groups. “Whenever there’s intense contact over a period of time, this kind of group dynamic takes over,” says Jim Spinelli, Open House Canada field officer in Vancouver. “No matter what other purposes it might have, the emotional experience alone makes the program worthwhile.”

Slow as they were to congeal, the bonds in Saint-Anselme set with the tenacity of maple taffy hardening between the teeth. By the evening of the farewell dance, the few resisters were strangely subdued, out of it, melted to their folding metal chairs as the others from Surrey were press-ganged into a traditional Quebec square dance swelling with conscripts like an ever-ex-

panding universe. And though they would see each other a week later in B.C., there were more tears at the Quebec City airport parting than ever doused the pages of Love Story.

Another explosion of emotion would end the follow-up exchange in B.C. after a week that saw Bill Vander Zalm warmly welcome the Saint-Anselme visitors to his Victoria office—in French. The week in Surrey would also include a whirlwind romance: Patrice Dallaire fell in love with Norma Nickel, a small step for national unity, a potentially great leap for their parents’ telephone bills.

But sobs and heartaches aren’t what the taxpayer is subsidizing. The national unity industry demands results and, for Open House Canada, results mean changed attitudes. No more booing of French at To-

ronto baseball games, no more embarrassing hostility between Frenchand EnglishCanadian tourists on the Caribbean beaches, fi ni the vicious jokes about Newfies, Frogs and the têtes carrées. Market Facts of Canada Ltd. of Toronto has been hired, at $120,000, to measure changes Open House Canada travellers experience in their attitudes toward the country and others living in it.

If the analysis confirms the Saint-Anselme experience, the unity bureaucrats may find some surprises. Open House Canada works—maybe too well. Young people from Surrey lost their hostility toward Quebec, all right, but increased understanding did not translate into greater determination to fight separatism. Typical was the comment of Big Mac connoisseur Carol McCauley: “It’s changed my views

on separation. I didn’t realize before that they had a reason. Now I see they are not getting enough recognition of their language and culture. I don’t think they should separate, but I think they should have the right to if they can’t get their rights recognized.”

Similar understanding was gained by Kelly Hull whose first visit to Quebec ended in sweet weeping as she clutched a miniature fleurdelisé and said au revoir to her friends. “I was so upset,” recalled Kelly. “I just didn’t want to go home. I really felt welcome there.” Like many of the visitors from Surrey, she remarked that Quebec’s image outside the province is belied by its reality: “Now I feel good about Quebec because I know people there and I know they’re friendly.”

For the Quebec kids the lesson was hu-

man, not constitutional. “I’m neither entirely for, nor entirely against separation,” said Patrice Dallaire, his eyes starred with nostalgia for Norma Nickel. “But, whatever happens, it shouldn’t change our relations with each other as individuals.”

What Hull, McCauley, Dallaire and the others learned, in the end, was to ignore the established biases. The differences, they discovered, are real — and vive la différence.

Five days after the return from B.C., Carole Roy mooned around the Saint-Anselme schoolyard. Her throat thickened with emotion as her thoughts flew back over the Rockies: “I wonder whether they often think about us.” As the lawn emptied of its lunchtime loiterers returning to class, Carole’s watch read 10 a.m., still ticking, like her heart, on Pacific time.^