How to win friends and really learn French (or English)

A little-known scheme called Visites Interprovinciales has cracked the secret: learn the other language by living with it. Does it work? Look at the astounding spectacle of the French-speaking Tories from Toronto who helped take Quebec

ERIC HUTTON August 16 1958

How to win friends and really learn French (or English)

A little-known scheme called Visites Interprovinciales has cracked the secret: learn the other language by living with it. Does it work? Look at the astounding spectacle of the French-speaking Tories from Toronto who helped take Quebec

ERIC HUTTON August 16 1958

How to win friends and really learn French (or English)

A little-known scheme called Visites Interprovinciales has cracked the secret: learn the other language by living with it. Does it work? Look at the astounding spectacle of the French-speaking Tories from Toronto who helped take Quebec



To the prolonged post-mortem on Quebec's sensational defeat of the Liberal party, a Montreal businessman recently contributed this afterthought: "Few people outside the province realize that the Conservatives used a secret campaign weapon. Never before have so many Ontario politicians come into Quebec willing, and sometimes even able, to speak, to French Canadians in French.”

The Liberals might have taken warning from the short session of parliament between general elections. Many new Conservative members, even from dichard-Bnglish Toronto ridings, showed an unprecedented readiness to break into French. Speaker Roland Michener. tar from being the traditionally English-speaking successor to a previous French-Canadian Speaker, proved fluent in parliament's “other language.”

Then, in the last election campaign, the Conservative board of strategy sprang its surprise. A spate of Ontario cabinet and sub-cabinet members wooed the surprised and delighted Quebec electors in their own tongue. George Hees. Donald Fleming and James Macdonnell, all cabinet ministers from Toronto, were the French-speaking spearhead; parliamentary assistants from Toronto like Arthur Maloney,

John Hamilton and David Walker manfully essayed whole speeches in French.

'It certainly had a psychological effect in our favor,” Walker admits. “Scarcely an Englishspeaking Liberal from Ontario ventured into Quebec, except Lester Pearson — and even Mr. Diefenbaker could match his French. The prime minister's, admittedly, isn't good. But he kept working at it and was a little better each time out. Quebec gave him 'E' for effort. That’s the point. You don't have to speak the language perfectly to please French-speaking Canadians. Make an honest effort and they'll meet you more than halfway with disregard of your mistakes and appreciation for your good intentions.”

An important arsenal of the Conservatives’ secret weapons is a little-publicized and totally non-political organization known as Visites Interprovinciales. The principal function of Visites is to arrange informal social visits between Quebec and Ontario people as house guests of each other for weeks or even whole summers at a time, in order to learn each other’s language and understand each other's customs, culture, outlook and way of life. By far the most important by-product of Visites, though, has been to make continued over page

Cooking, worshipping, romping, sightseeing with this Canadien family, a Toronto teen-ager learns ahout French verbs —and the French-Canadian way of life


personal friends of scores of Frenchand English-speaking families who otherwise would never have known of each other’s existence.

For its first ten years the Visiles’ headquarters was a desk drawer in the study of James Biggar, history master at Upper Canada College in Toronto. Biggar originated the idea (with a membership of two teen-aged boys) in 1936. Any connection between the organization and the Conservatives has been purely coincidental. After the war Biggar sought the Ontario government’s help for his project. He not only got a small grant, but aroused the interest of Roland Michener, then provincial secretary. The Micheners enrolled their three daughters for Visites and themselves became in turn hosts and guests of new-found FrenchCanadian friends. Eater Mrs. Michener joined the organization and helped in its expansion.

Word of the Visiles spread among Michener’s colleagues. David Walker, later to be MP for Rosedale, made no fewer than four Visites with his family. Mr. and Mrs. George Hees brushed up their French in an exchange of hospitality with a Quebec family. Other future Conservative front-benchers either enrolled themselves or caught up with their high-school French via their children’s Quebec guests.

The “political wing" of Visites is, of course, only a small and accidental segment of the plan. This year nearly fifteen hundred Quebec and Ontario families will become temporarily bilingual as hosts or guests. That will bring to more than sixteen thousand the number of individuals or families who have lived in each other’s homes, spoken each other's language, played, eaten and discussed viewpoints with each other. The organization has expanded from Biggar’s desk drawer to offices in Toronto. Quebec City and Montreal and representatives in Ottaw'a, London. Ont., Belleville, Chicoutimi. Baie-St. Paul, Roberval, Granby, Mont Joli, Montmagny, and Shawinigan Falls.

“And in 1936 when it all started 1 not only didn’t know a single French Canadian personally.” recalls Biggar, “but I didn't even know anyone who knew a French Canadian. When I realized that, it made the idea seem all the more urgent.”

Two decades ago there was more than a lack of acquaintanceship separating Toronto and French-speaking Quebec. A Canadien w'ho moved to Toronto about that time recalls: “To speak French in an elevator or any public place was to draw stares of curiosity, almost of incredulity. And, often enough to be embarrassing, a hearer would growl, 'Speak English, man — you're in Toronto now'.’ But back home my friends and relatives w'ere no more tolerant. They genuinely couldn't understand how 1 could bear to live among such unpleasant people-as Torontonians must be. I haven’t encountered anything like that, on either side of the provincial border, for some years now.”

What brought Biggar’s plan for interprovincial amity into existence was the return of a group of Upper Canada College boys, full of a trip they had made into unknown territory, the mining region of Northern Ontario. It struck Biggar that it might have been more instructive if they had become acquainted with another “unknown” part of Canada — Quebec and its people. He mentioned this in class and two boys, George Grant and Kenneth Ramsay,

promptly volunteered for the pioneer experiment.

The first hitch was that Grant couldn't afford the forty-dollar return fare. His father had recently died and it was mid-depression. Then Biggar told him he had found a man willing to put up the money to further the experiment. “It wasn’t until years later I found out that the man was Jim Biggar himself — and I'm sure he couldn’t afford it at the time,” Grant says.

The founder no longer has to finance his project out of his own pocket, but he still believes that no organization wáth a budget as small as the Visites' seventeen thousand dollars a year influences the lives of so many people. “We could quadruple our program and still do no more than scratch the surface of the job that remains to be done,” he says.

Biggar solved the problem of where to send his pioneer members in "the summer of 1936 by tracking down a Toronto man who knew a Montreal man who knew a French Canadian who in turn persuaded two friends to take the Toronto boys into their homes at a nominal charge for board and lodging. Grant and Ramsay each spent a month, separately, with Abbé Georges Robitailles, a Joliet County parish priest, and Dr. Victor Morin, a remarkable Montrealer who was (and still is at ninety-three) a notaire, banker, historian, author and connoisseur of fine food and wine.

Biggar’s hope that a few weeks in a Quebec home might broaden a student’s outlook and brush up his French proved to be a modest estimate from the very start. That summer visit, repeated the next year, had a profound effect on the lives of both boys.

“Kenneth came home chattering like a magpie in French,” recalls Ramsay’s mother, Mrs. A. Gordon Ramsay. “The Morins were no longer the strange foreign people he had set out to visit. They had become Oncle Victor, Tante Alphonsine and Cousins Gisèle, Claire, Marie, Renée, Roland, Guy, Roger and Jacques.” Ramsay entered Canada’s foreign service and is now the fluently French-speaking commercial secretary of the Canadian embassy in Brussels.

Grant, now professor of philosophy at Dalhousie University, recalls that at sixteen he thought of the trip as an expedition into an uncivilized hinterland. His father had been principal of Upper Canada College, and he had grown up in a rarefied social and intellectual atmosphere. “But the Morins opened my eyes,” he says. “They weren’t wealthy, but they were far more civilized and cultured than any family I knew in Toronto.”

Cirant was floored when the Morins’ grandson Jacques, two years his junior, tried to draw him into breakfast-table discussions of the classical French authors and the religious doctrine of transubstantiation. “I didn’t even know what the word meant,” Cirant admitted recently, “and my knowledge of classical authors began and ended with Shakespeare, who was being pressed on us in school. Besides, mealtimes at the Morins were not occasions to be wasted in discussions. After twenty years 1 can still taste those perfect meals, each with appropriate wines. Among Dr. Morin’s dozens of interests he was the founder of a gastronomic society and the most eminent figures of Quebec angled for invitations continued on page 32

An evening at home, a session with a Mixmaster, and an afternoon out for grooming and good food —they all help the Quebec girl master English words and ways

How to really learn French (or English)

continued from page 24

One Visite introduction has led to forty-six friendships

to the gourmet banquets he held periodically.'

Since the majority of Visites participants have been growing boys and girls il is not surprising thal some of their most vivid recollections concern food. Quebec hospitality is such that many Ontario youngsters come home as much as twenty pounds heavier. When Muriel Stevens, daughter of a Bowmanville dairy owner, was fourteen she visited the family of Amadee Harvey who runs a dairy and farm on Lake St. John near Chicoutimi. The Harveys insisted that she become one of the family—and eat like them.

“That meant that every time my plate was empty it would immediately be rcfilled and Madame Harvey would chide me for ‘eating like a bird,’ ” she recalls. “As a result I gained fifteen pounds in five weeks and it took me years to get it oil.”

Muriel Stevens had been warned by schoolmates to be cautious of the “wild life” in Quebec, and when the Harvey family invited her to join them in a “liqueur” she declined in alarm — and found herself drinking water while the family quaffed lemon soda. The Stevens and the Harveys have since become close friends and exchange visits almost every year. Nowadays they laugh at the early difficulties of learning each other's language and becoming acquainted with the other's province. Once the Harveys asked Muriel if she could swim. “Of course," she answered, "1 live right on Lake Ontario.” "Ah." they warned, “but Lake St. John is a hig lake.”

One Toronto girl came home with a taste for maple syrup on her breakfast eggs. Another missed a luxury to which she had become accustomed, “a huge block of maple sugar on the sideboard that we could cut hunks off any time we wanted.” Several have demanded homemade bread just like their hostesses baked in outdoor ovens. A boy with a hearty appetite sighed for the sumptuous Saturday night suppers featuring a huge pot of brown beans and numerous side dishes.

"Tell me how they did it and I'll try," his mother said, but hastily withdrew her offer when the boy answered:

"I'm not sure—but Madame and the four girls spent all of Saturday in the kitchen doing it."

A Three Rivers schoolboy who spent a summer in Toronto was asked by his parents what Toronto people ate. He made a face. "Very strange food,” he said. "Ground-up alfalfa, carrot juice, nuts—stuff like that.” By chance he had been directed to the home of a food faddist with unorthodox ideas about nutrition.

The interprovincial visitors absorb a great deal more than each other's gastronomy, however. Last year eight girls from Havergal College, a Toronto private school, spent their holidays with Quebec families. In the fall they returned to the fourth form at Havergal, but they were so far ahead of their year in French that now they take French lessons with the fifth form.

At Fast York Collegiate in suburban Toronto, more than a thousand pupils speak French only during French periods and interest in the subject is so high that Principal W. D. A. Douglas finds it necessary to curb the enthusiasm of his French teachers to avoid encroachment

on other parts of the curriculum. “And our very best French students are those who have been on Visites,” says Miss Madeliene Lake, head of Fast York's French department. Biggar finds that a Visile has become almost a "must” for honor French course students at the University of Toronto.

T he success of the V¡sites’ other objective, the creation of better relations between Frenchand English-speaking Canadians, is a more subtle matter and not easy to pin down statistically. Young people are not given to philosophizing on such things. They do, however, absorb a great many practical ideas. After four boys from St. Stanislas, a Christian Brothers secondary school in Montreal, visited East York Collegiate and lived at the homes of four Toronto students, Marc Dansercau reported to his schoolmates on tw'o important discoveries:

"At East York Institute many subjects are optional. Had we such a liberty, maybe some of our teachers wouldn't be too busy.

“There are boys and girls in the same classes. Lucky boys! Lucky girls!”

Probably the best indication of the crumbling of Ontario-Quebec barriers is the manner in which the parents have followed up their children’s visits. An example is the Kennedy-Begin entente.

Ninth-generation newcomer

In 1951 Sandra Kennedy, teen-aged daughter of Jack Kennedy, treasurer of General Foods, Ltd., Toronto, paid a visit to the family of Hon. Joseph Begin, Quebec’s minister of colonization. It was, the Begins revealed, the first time an Ontario resident had entered their home as a guest. Next year Nicole, eldest of the seven Begin children, returned the visit, and did something she would never have dreamed of doing at home — she took a job behind a counter. In Dutch costume she presided over a cheese exhibit at the Canadian National Exhibition.

Nicole’s accent intrigued an exhibition visitor. “And how long have you been in this country?” he asked.

She answered demurely: “Nine generations.”

That fall the Begins visited the Kennedys and it was the first time they had had French Canadians in their home. When the Kennedys were guests at the Begin summer place at Lac des Neiges, Mrs. Kennedy had a birthday and the Begins surprised her with a cake decorated with Quebec's fleur de lis. "We couldn't find out Ontario's symbolic flower.” they apologized. Since then the Begins have become familiar with the multitudes of trilliums at the Kennedys' summer cottage in Muskoka.

The Begin-Kennedy friendship has expanded into nearly a dozen families in both provinces. On first-name terms of intimacy now are the families of Paul Godbout, a Quebec grain merchant; Gérard Tardiff. a Pointe Claire executive; Mayor Guay of Sillery. Que.; Howard Crossan. a Toronto typewriter-company official; Clarence McQuillin. an advertising-agency vice-president; Ralph Christie, a Toronto manufacturer; and Frank Hubbel. hardware and lumber dealer of Huntsville. This summer young Michel Begin is working in the Hubbel hardware store while his friend Jack Hubbel

works for one of the Quebec companies in which Begin, Sr., has an interest.

in all. forty-six Frenchand Englishspeaking Canadians, adults and youngsters. now share each other’s way of life through a single “introduction” made by Visites Interprovinciales. All the families adhere to an agreement that only English is spoken among them when in Ontario, only French in Quebec.

"The only inequality is that our Quebec friends give us better fishing than we can give them,” says Kennedy.

In cases like the Kennedys and the Begins, as with dozens more in which firm interfamily friendships have been established, the Visites cease to play an active role. “In other words,” says Biggar, “our objective is to be self-liquidating. We look to the time when Englishand French-speaking Canadians get to know each other as a matter of course and an organization like ours won't be necessary.”

Meanwhile, though, the Visites arc expanding the methods by which the two races can become acquainted. The basic procedure of one member of a family becoming the guest of an "opposite number” in the latter’s home is considered ideal for a first visit. Brothers or sisters visiting together is discouraged since they tend to seek refuge in each other's company when they run into language difficulties or become homesick. In such exchanges, the visitors are non-paying guests and the only costs involved are for travel.

Many families in both provinces, unable to exchange visits, welcome guests who either pay a nominal board or receive board, lodging and pocket money in return for helping with housework and baby care, much as an elder daughter of the family might. But Visites officials keep a wary eye for cheaters who have no interest in the organization's objectives but are delighted with the prospect of getting "a little French maid" for small wages.

Even when a young visitor is treated like a loved member of the family, homesickness is a problem. This is especially true of Quebec children whose life is usually more bound up in home and family than Ontario youngsters’. Hosts and hostesses have been known to take extraordinary steps to cheer up their visitors. One Toronto society woman asked a sad little Quebec farm girl. "What would you be doing if you were at home now. dear?”

"Preserving,” said the girl. “It is my favorite time.”

Her hostess, who had never engaged in this activity, ordered a bushel of strawberries. For the rest of her visit the girl happily supervised an endless succession of steaming kettles in the bemused woman's immaculate kitchen and pressed "madame” into the unaceus tomed task of putting down dozens of quarts of jam.

"Heaven knows where I'll put them," she told her amused husband.

A small-town Quebec girl, guest of a Toronto company president and his wife, moped for days. Her host tried to beguile her by a visit to the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. He was the club's croquet champion, and offered to teach the girl this tricky game.

“Gh. I have played it." she said. And proceeded to prove it by trouncing the

champion in three straight games—after which her homesickness disappeared.

When the couple's own fifteen-yearold daughter returned from her visit, they asked if she had been homesick.

“Heavens, no,” she answered. "I learned to drive a car." Her Quebec host was the mayor and undertaker of his town. "They let me drive the mourners' limousine,” she explained.

One of the questions most frequently asked by Ontario parents is. "But will my children learn correct French in Quebec?” Abbé Arthur Maheux, archivist of

Laval University, a council member of Visites from its early days and one of Quebec’s chief exponents of understanding between Frenchand English-speaking Canadians, says:

"Ontario people often talk of Quebec French as ‘not Parisian French.’ That is silly and should be demolished forever. I know only one Parisian French, and th;d is a jargon more corrupt than the Cockney of London. In France about three hundred varieties of French are spoken—and Quebec French is as good and correct as any of them."

The only corruption in Quebec French is in the field of mechanics. Instruction books for various types of machinery are written in English and Quebec mechanics have adopted them in “Frenchified” versions. A motorist with a leaking radiator recently stopped at a Quebec garage and explained in careful French. "Monsieur, mon réservoir est brisé.” The mechanic looked puzzled. Then he examined the car and exclaimed: “Ah, votre boiler est buste.'”

The learning of the "other language” is not always the objective of Visites.

For many youngsters of both provinces who take summer jobs (“We must compete with gas for the boys’ jalopies and the girls’ desire for new clothes,” says Biggar) the Visites organize long-weekend supervised visits in groups of thirty or forty. These don't match summer-long home visits in effectiveness, but they do give larger numbers of youngsters an intensive glimpse of how the other province lives.

Visites and the preparation for a career are often combined. In Toronto, Simpsons Ltd. employs about a hundred bilingual workers and many of these have obtained their jobs after learning English on Visiles. Last summer two teen-aged girls, Madeleine Pépin of Montmagny and Raymonde Gagnon of Chicoutimi, spent two months with Toronto families and learned enough English to get good jobs in Simpsons mail-order office. Another Visites graduate, Marie Belleau. is credit manager of the Quebec sales office.

Although teen-agers form the majority of Visites participants, there's no age limit. Children as young as eight have taken part, and one of the keenest members is Dr. Robert Mann, a Toronto physician in his seventies who spends part of each summer with a Quebec family. “I decided I had to learn more about Quebec after reading Marie Chapdelaine." said Dr. Mann. "Eve perfected my French to the point where I can converse freely with any one member of my host's family at a time. My ambition is to be able to understand the family's rapid-fire torrent of cross-talk at the dinner table. I haven't come close yet.'

When Edward Lewkowski, a Moncton. N.B., businessman, opened a Montreal branch of his company, Canada Brokers and Distributors, he decided to learn French. He applied to Visites for an introduction to a Canadien family, with whom he is now living happily anil rapidly learning the language. A number of national companies have found homes for employees transferred to Quebec through Visiles and testify that their staff members rapidly acquire a working knowledge of French.

This year Visiles has introduced still another project, the "twinning" of Ontario and Quebec cities for the exchange of visits. Roger Lapointe of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, who is Visites’ Montreal representative, has organized twenty cities as twins, and this July there was a mass transmigration of twenty-five boys and girls from each city for a two-week visit as guests of the civic officials and service clubs. I hey will stay in homes from which children have gone to the opposite city. 1 he “twinned” communities are HamiltonShawinigan. Windsor-Granby, WellandSore I, London-Quebec City. Three Rivers-St. Catharines. Oshawa-Rimouski. Sarnia-Riviere du Loup, Kitchener-Sherbrooke, Brantford-Chicoutimi and Nia gara Falls-Jonquière.

The reactions of nearly six hundred youngsters to their new environment will, of course, come in many varieties. But Roger Lapointe, who has conducted many group visits, can give a shrewd guess at their main stream of thought. "When they are going." he says, "they will worry and wonder about all the differences they will encounter in a strange city. On their way back all the talk will be of how alike so many things are." ★