Frontlines

Old McGill is alive and well in the new Quebec

David Thomas April 16 1979
Frontlines

Old McGill is alive and well in the new Quebec

David Thomas April 16 1979

Old McGill is alive and well in the new Quebec

Frontlines

David Thomas

At David Johnston’s official presentation last February as McGill principal-to-be, a French-speaking reporter offhandedly dismissed his maladroitness with Quebec’s official language. “He’ll learn it,” she gushed. “And, anyway, he’s so handsome.”

Such non sequiturs pass almost unnoticed amid the greater illogicalities current on the midtown Montreal campus bequeathed by Scottish fur-trader James McGill. The 158-year-old university is one of the few in North America enjoying an increase in enrolment and an unexpected surge in private contributions—$26.5 million since 1974. A rush of students and money like that would reassure faculties elsewhere in these days of evaporating enrolments, but McGill’s mood remains disconsolate.

Davey Johnston skated up the ice, red-faced, angry. He passed right by me without so much as a glance. And did I notice tears in his eyes? I mean, okay, the title was at stake, but Jesus—tears! But then Davey, our captain, had this incredible streak going for him: seven years and he'd never played on a losing side, high school or college. It was like a minor legend . . . That minor legend, straight from chapter 3 of Eric Segal’s Love Story, is real, the same David Johnston who, in September, will be-

come principal of what is still arguably Canada’s most respected institution of higher learning. McGill’s choice of the 37-year-old former college hockey hero, a onetime Harvard dormitory mate of Segal’s and the author’s model for the team captain, is, at the very least, needed cosmetic surgery for the university’s worry-lined visage. Johnston has a reputation as a winner that goes beyond the melodramatic pages of Love Story. Painstakingly charming and as careful with words as a politician, he seduced McGill’s board of governors early this year with his distinction as a scholar and administrator, honed during the last five years as dean of law at the University of Western Ontario.

McGill clings to the same slope of Mount Royal as the upper-most stratum of English Montreal, a withering elite whose once intimidating bluster has been overwhelmed by the rumble of moving vans. Translated into cold statistics, the combined effect of the anglo emigration, declining births, dwindling immigration and Quebec law restricting English schooling to children of parents themÄ selves educated in Quebec English

schools adds up to an uncertain future for the English - language educational establishment. About 60

per cent of McGill enrolment comes from Quebec’s English-language schools. With that kind of dependency, it is not hard to imagine the malaise provoked within McGill this winter by projections of a “devastating” decline of registrations in the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal. Says board Planning Director Tom Blacklock: “The time for very thoughtful long-term planning, new policies and sets of alternatives for a new future is upon us. The system as it now exists is not likely to be able to survive for very long.”

So shaken was the McGill establishment by the Parti Québécois’s ascension to power that Arts Dean Robert Vogel suggested that the university flee Quebec for Toronto, Ottawa or even the Yukon. That panicky plan was quickly dismissed by outgoing Principal Robert Bell. But Bell exposed jitters of his own when he went before the provincial government two years ago to predict McGill’s demise as a first-class institution because of language legislation choking off the flow of newcomers to English-language schools. “The threat to McGill is real,” Bell told the legislators. “Would the loss of or serious damage to McGill matter to Quebec? We submit that it would.”

Bell’s fundamental objection to the language law “is that it imposes different rights and obligations on different Quebec residents by classifying them into different ethnic and linguistic groups ...” This denotes a significant evolution in McGill philosophy: the university once maintained barriers to limit the enrolment of Jews. Until the Canadian Jewish Congress objected in 1942, McGill’s admission requirement for Jews was a 65-per-cent high-school « average. For others, it was 50 per cent. S Says former congress director Saul w Hayes: “I remember going with Mr. £ Samuel Bronfman to raise hell about

0 this with S. Cyril James.” Though § James, principal from 1939 to 1962, was w sympathetic, there was, Hayes recalls, t resistance to ending discrimination: uj “Not all the governors were reluctant,

1 but some were. McGill was really the £ bulwark of the Protestants and it was

only by privilege that Jews were let in at all.”

Things have changed dramatically since: Bronfman’s name adorns a

campus building, the university offers a complete Jewish-studies program with classes in Hebrew and Yiddish. But still, an unmistakable mist of nemesis hangs over McGill as its denizens agonize over the treatment they, as a minority in Quebec, can expect from the provincial government. Even a simple government suggestion that McGill share surplus space with the city’s other English-language university, Concordia, is distrusted: “It could be an attempt to create an English ghetto,” suspects the university’s information officer, Betsy Hirst.

McGill’s salvation may, in fact, lie in the very phenomenon it now sees as a threat: the flourishing of French-

speaking Quebec at the expense of its English minority. A decade ago, thousands of young Quebec nationalists stormed McGill’s Sherbrooke Street gates, raising the cry “McGill française”—a demand that the university become a French-language institution. That isn’t likely to happen because no one, least of all Quebec’s French-language universities, wants it. But French is becoming an important language on campus and the university is loudly emphasizing its mutual dependence with French Quebec. Since the “ McGill française” demonstration, francophone enrolment has climbed by one per cent a year, to 17 per cent, and the McGill planning office expects one in four students to be francophone in a few years. Already some law courses are offered in French, while McGill and Université de Montréal law faculties exchange profes-

sors and sponsor joint symposiums. “We regard Université de Montréal as a sister institution,” says Associate Dean of Law William Foster.

Other signs of McGill’s belated but enthusiastic discovery of the society surrounding it are equally eloquent: the McGill Daily is published in French every Tuesday, McGill is connected with several French-language resource centres and its sensitivity to Quebec’s temper is such that sociologists Maurice Pinard and Richard Hamilton were the first political observers to predict a PQ victory, which they did six months before the November, 1976, election.

It is the fact that McGill is in Quebec that has saved it from the shrinking enrolments suffered by other Englishlanguage universities. In fact, its student body increased its numbers by 470 to 19,581 this year. Part of the explanation is that the proportion of Quebec’s French speakers going on to university is still increasing and McGill attracts much of Quebec’s next generation of elite which knows it will have to be the intermediary with the rest of the continent. McGill for such francophones is an ideal place to acquire the necessary mastery of English. Even the Quebec language law is being seen as an eventual asset, according to a McGill planning office document: “With Bill 101, more and more Quebec students will have been educated in French and may wish to benefit from an English higher education.”

The most compelling proof of McGill’s new dependence is the source of its money: a full 75 per cent of its $116-million budget comes from the provincial government. Even if the Parti Québécois were to vanish,

McGill’s vitality would re main contingent upon the benevolence of Quebec’s Frenchspeaking majority. In this the university shares the plight of most other institutions of English Montreal. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, principal-elect Johnston was plunged into that dependence one day last month when he faced cameras in a subterranean studio of Montreal’s Maison du Radio-Canada. Taping an interview for the local CBC English television station, Johnston swivelled under the canopy of the set’s fanciful gazebo, answering, yes, he did live across the hall from Eric Segal when they both attended Harvard, and, yes, that is him there on page 19, while cameramen, the floor manager and the whole production team in the control room overhead worked and joked their way through the show . . . entirely in French. The scene underscored the lost autonomy of Montreal’s English-speaking minority.

A man who grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and cannot speak French appears, then, an odd choice for principal, given McGill’s sensitive situation. Johnston, though, exhibits both a determination to learn and a wry humor: “I’ve read my Hugh McLennan.” He promises to spend the summer immersed in French before his formal investiture in September.

He and his family will feel the full impact of Quebec’s language regime. His wife, Sharon, is to intern as a physiotherapist and, before being granted a provincial licence, must pass a government proficiency test in French. Their five daughters, by law, must attend French-language schools. But the new principal seems to welcome the culture shock and the constitutional referendum many English-speaking Montrealers anticipate with trepidation. “One of the reasons my family and I were attracted to McGill and Montreal is that this is a unique time in our history and it’s going to be a lot of fun living through that. If you have a sense of history, it’s really rather fulfilling to think that you’re going to be able to experience it in an immediate way—and maybe contribute a bit to the understanding of the issues.”

Such words are rare within Quebec’s beleaguered minority. And if Johnston brings nothing more than his low-key sense of humor and his evident serenity to English Montreal, his presence will be an urgently needed asset to that community, to Quebec and, certainly, to his uneasy university,