HOW TWO WOMEN FEEL ABOUT ONE CANADA OR TWO
Novelist Gwethalyn Graham (L) and journalist Solange Chaput Rolland (R) have for the last year been engaged in a dialogue, spoken and written, about relations betiveen French and English Canada. Their letters, an exploration of the private side of our most important public issue, will be published this month — as DEAR ENEMIES by Macmillan and as CHERS ENNEMIS by Editions du Jour. Here, they exchange opinions on the causes of separatism
Not so long ago we met by accident on a train, and I realized that your perception with regard to the Jewish problem in Montreal made you extremely sensitive to the difficulties which set French and English Canadians against one another. Let us go back to that trip on a Peace Train in November 1962: Canadian women from all walks of life representing the two linguistic groups of Canada were going to Parliament to beg our cabinet ministers not to involve our country in the nuclear arms race. A memorandum was presented to Howard Green who made a speech which was rather uninspired, considering the circumstances; for twenty minutes he said nothing, but he said it entirely in English. The majority of the delegation were French-Canadian women, many of whom couldn’t even understand him. Denied their right to be answered in French in that cathedral of constitutional bilingualism. Parliament, they made a rather noisy demonstration against a unilingualism which was merely insulting.
In the train coming back, I col-
lapsed in the seat beside you, my heart pounding and my sense of patriotism outraged. I felt so humiliated and angry that I had to make an immense effort not to lose my temper. Sensing how I felt, you deplored our politicians’ lack of common courtesy, in impeccable French. Your kindness and your insistence on speaking my language calmed me down. I was grateful to you and a few weeks later 1 suggested that we should write a “dialogue” on French and English Canada. On the psychological level, I feel a need to free myself by saying everything that is not habitually said about Canada and to say it to an English Canadian.
I am fed up with your unilingualism, with your Gordons, your Reverend Ellis, your open contempt for French Canadians, your intolerable custom of having your children taught our language by teachers who can’t speak a word of French and of ignoring the whole French “fact,” the shocking racial discrimination in the civil service in Ottawa. Yes, I am fed up with the never-ending economic superiority of your businessmen, with
your pretentions that you are more “competent” in no matter what field, with the skilfully camouflaged desire of certain English Canadians to have done once and for all with this French survival and its obstinate presence in an Anglo-American context. I feel like indulging in one fine furious outburst, at least between you and me, to clear the air of this mésentente cordiale which has done nothing since 1763 but place Quebec in opposition to the rest of this so British country!
Scarcely two years ago, the Montreal Star and the Gazette were still systematically ignoring the reality of French Canada. Reading them, one could have sworn that Quebec was an English province! Today they are making a real effort to pay some attention to us, but we haven’t the slightest illusion about this sudden interest in our problems. What makes us suddenly attractive to your compatriots is our nationalization of electricity, our almost miraculous industrial development, and our astonishing possibility of becoming in less than ten years one of the most prosperous provinces in Canada. We are no longer the poor
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“I am neither a separatist nor a fanatic, but I am passionately attached to my French identity”
relations of Confederation. So “Bravo, French Canada; you are suddenly wonderful and we love you.” And what I say to you is . . . zut. I listen to your politicians extolling our merits, recognizing our vital role in the history of our national identity. Your businessmen suddenly discover ours and are astonished by their industrial intelligence. All this is good, fine, but it reeks of political capital.
I am not a witness for the whole French-Canadian people. In the same sense, I feel that you are different from the mass of English Canadians, from those whom I indict in this letter. You are in love with English culture, French cooking, and the Quebec way of life. So I have confidence in you and will talk to you very frankly. I am neither a separatist nor a nationalist fanatic, but I am passionately attached to my French identity and relentlessly determined to defend it against anyone who would try to make me live in English.
Our country is far too large for a citizen of Halifax or Vancouver to be interesied in the usage of French. But between these two extremes — universal bilingualism and a complete ignorance of the French fact — isn’t there some middle road? I am incapable of forgiving English Canadians who have been living in Quebec for a hundred or two hundred years for not having learned French. I don’t expect to speak French in Vancouver, but when I find myself obliged to speak English in Montreal, in order to be understood, I am full of hatred. The English Canadians living in Quebec who have never tried to express themselves in French are directly responsible for the popularity of the separatist movements. I can’t feel any tolerance, any patience for these English people, and, if some day they complain of not feeling at ease in our land of Quebec, they have asked for our resentment.
I am grateful to Marcel Chaput (no relation of mine) for having stimulated our sense of national pride, our due measure of self-confidence and a taste for expressing our exasperation in broad daylight. In French Canada we have been short on self-confidence. All you have to do is walk the streets of our cities and towns to realize with what servility we endow our places of business with English names — an object lesson in flattering the vanity of an economic power of which as yet we don’t possess the secret.
In 1963 we still have to congratulate ourselves because the schools of Ontario have officially extended the teaching of French to students in Grade VIII. The Reverend Mr. Ellis must be furious with this waste of time! The Gazette of last Dec. 16 reported him as saying, “Why should we spend vast sums of money to accommodate those who should have learned English two hundred years ago?” And, to emphasize his hatred, the minister added: “Quebec is a
clerico-fascist state isolated from the rest of us for two hundred years.” The day following this harangue, the ranks of the separatists were doubtless swelled by the addition of some hundreds of militants. The Ellis incident was just another drop in the bitter cup. Alas, there are thousands of Ellises, for whom French is a decadent language.
I was brought up in a “pro-English” family, as we say. From the age of six, from five to eight every evening, we had to speak English at home. As a child I had as many English friends as French friends. Since I've been married, friends of any race are welcome in our home. Yet, although I feel completely at home in this French province, I am often aware of a sort of tiredness when I am confronted by your compatriots in Quebec. When I encounter them in the Ciaspc, in the Eastern Townships, in our lovely Laurentians, and listen to them desperately trying in Diefenbaker French to make themselves understood by a policeman, or someone in a garage, I no longer have any desire to come to their aid. Yes, I do feel this tiredness and a sort of humiliation in realizing that after two hundred years in Quebec, some English Canadians, although so proud of having built Canada. of having written our history, are still incapable of asking for a postage stamp in the second official language of Canada.
SOLANGE CHAEUT ROLLAND DEAR SOLANGE:
I have a feeling that this dialogue is going to consist of a good deal of
point-counter-point. For example, it is no use asking me how English Canadians can live in Quebec for twenty years or even twenty days without bothering to learn French, because I don’t understand them any better than you do. On the other hand, however, when you wonder why you should be obliged to speak English anywhere in Montreal in order to be understood, I wonder why so few French Canadians will allow me to speak French!
I am not joking. Your people aren’t very patient with English Canadians struggling to speak French and, temperamentally, English Canadians are more self-conscious than French Canadians when it comes to blundering around in another language.
It isn’t as easy for an English-speaking Canadian to be bilingual as most French Canadians appear to think. He starts out by speaking French less well than the French speak English, for reasons which do not necessarily have anything to do with arrogance, insensitivity or lack of curiosity. I could give you innumerable personal examples, of which here are two:
I used to have my car repaired at a garage where everyone from the owner down was French Canadian. The first time I went there I said I was having trouble with my “freins.” What 1 got in reply was, of course, “brakes.” I was up against a solid wall of English and when later on I asked why, one day, the manager pointed to the walls which were covered with huge diagrams of engines, printed in English in Detroit, and said with some exasperation, “My mechan-
ics are dealing with Chrysler products, not Renaults or Dauphines!”
The second example concerns a Montreal businessman whose English isn't very good and when I asked him why he always insisted on speaking it. he almost snapped at me, “For you French is a luxury, for me English is a necessity. I can’t speak French when I go on business trips to Toronto and New York.”
Incidentally, I have been surprised by the number of French Canadians writing about bilingualism in the French press who seem totally ignorant of the fact that no English-speaking Protestant student in Quebec is granted a school leaving certificate if he can't pass examinations in both written and oral French. The standard is not yet high enough, but at least it is steadily rising within the limits of our insane system of education, which prohibits a Roman Catholic French Canadian from teaching in a Protestant school, and which equally prevents an English-speaking Protestant from teaching in a French Catholic school.
You say you are completely fed up with our “intolerable custom of having our children taught your language by teachers who can’t speak a word of French." Well, all right. I have only one question to put to you: Where are our French teachers supposed to come from? In the province of Quebec, and to a lesser extent in Canada as a whole, the most competent usually come from Belgium, France and Switzerland and, since it is obvious that there are never anything like
enough Belgians, French and Swiss willing to abandon their own countries to teach French in our schools, we are forced to fall back on English Canadians. You have met some whose qualifications were lamentable or nonexistent but, in view of the shortage of good teachers which afflicts this entire country, I suppose it becomes a question of making do with what one has. And, as you know, it cuts both ways — French Canadians are all too often taught English by French Canadians in their primary and secondary schools, with the result that, although they may be technically “bilingual," their English is, again, all too often pretty dreadful.
Fundamental to the solution of the problem of bilingualism is the presence of French Canadians in the schools of English Canada. That they have been almost entirely absent throughout our history, and still are, must astonish any non-Canadian. Perhaps still more important than the academic aspect of the problem is the purely human one — I can think of no single change which would lead rapidly and effectively to a healing of the present breach between English and French Canadians and to a greater appreciation, love and understanding of Quebec than to have the students of the nine other provinces taught French by French Canadians. Part of the reason why so many people in English Canada know so little about Quebec is the fact that, as students, those who studied French were always confronted by French teachers who were either English Canadians
like themselves or importations from Europe. Even if French were, as it ought to be, compulsory in all schools of English Canada, it would inevitably continue to be regarded as a “foreign” and not a “Canadian” language so long as it was taught almost exclusively by Europeans or by Canadians whose native language is English. I realize that Quebec is already far too short of teachers to be expected or even able to supply them for the schools of English Canada, but this problem seems to me so grave and so urgent that it demands a joint solution between all ten provinces and the federal government.
You say that I don’t conform to your conception of an English-speaking Canadian and of com »e you are right. Yet at the same time I am far more “typical” of English Canada than the Reverend Mr. Frederick Ellis whose silly statements in Hamilton went almost unnoticed in the nearby city of Toronto, and, so far as I can gather, were either buried in the back pages or simply unpublished in places like Vancouver. And apparently I am more "tvpical” than the editors of the Star and the Gazette, who, as again you rightly point out, seem only to have discovered the French “fact” about two years ago.
The majority of English-speaking Quebeckers live out their lives in silence, saying nothing until election day when they often go out and vote en masse for a party (the Liberals, for example, during the Duplessis regime) or a principle (the nationalization of electricity) which “their” newspapers did not support. It was with a certain air of surprise that the French press reported at the height of the Gordon affair in the House of Commons that the English members of parliament from Quebec had closed ranks with the French across party lines and formed a single angry front. Why the surprise? Because, as things are, even French journalists seem to have too few available means of knowing what we are thinking, let alone the average, relatively uninformed French Canadian.
I have seldom encountered what you describe as our “open contempt for French Canadians” among English Canadians, but I have encountered a great deal of ignorance and indifference and a certain amount of open exasperation. As for the exasperation, two remarks I have heard recently throw some light on it. The first was, "What have French Canadians ever done to develop their own country or even their own province? Their forefathers were the first great explorers of Canada and the United States, but after the French lost to the English they did nothing but shut themselves up in Quebec and feel sorry for themselves.” The second was made to me by a woman in Vancouver who said irritably, “Let Quebec first put its own house in order and then start lecturing us.” Since she was talking about the disheartening contrast between British Columbia’s admirable department of corrections and the wretched prison system of Quebec, I couldn't give her much of an argument. Nobody can write off the condition of Quebec jails and Quebec's appalling recidivist rate as something else to be blamed on “Eng-
lish domination.” The first speaker had a point too, because apart from the fact that there is some truth in what he said, your people, in general, do persist in regarding themselves with masochistic egoism as Canadians unique in their experience of defeat, most of them having apparently forgotten that this difficult country was primarily composed of three defeated peoples. Presumably some of them remember the United Empire Loyalists who fled for their lives over the
border into the Maritime Provinces and Ontario during the American Revolution — landless, impoverished, stripped of everything they possessed except their desire not to be Americans: but who among you remembers that the Scots lost their last battle against the English in 1745? England is not my "mother country.” nor is it the mother country of the majority of English-speaking Canadians. You have only to reflect that Canadians of nonBritish and non-French origin number
almost five million (living chiefly among our eight million British Canadians) to be struck by the fact that the French-Canadian view of English Canada is almost as dangerously oversimplified as the "English” view of the French ...
1 have been discussing English Canada with you for days now and more than once you have remarked halfteasingly, "But, Solange, who are these
English Canadians you arc always talking about? I’ve never met one of them.” Since you fail to recognize your fellow countrymen in what I’ve been telling you, Gwen, I am going to introduce you to some of the ones I encountered haphazardly in the course of a lecture tour across the country.
In the middle of October 1961, 1 boarded a train, full of excitement, to conquer that Unknown Country, English Canada. A cultural organization was sending me to the other nine provinces to discuss my own and to explain its French character. Moved
by a rather naïve desire to be useful,
I went into the vast English-speaking world to talk about the current upheaval in Quebec. I left Montreal a French-speaking Canadian, and I came back a French Canadian, furiously determined to remain just that in the face of no matter whom or what. I had been curious and anxious to discover the reality of Canada as a whole, but 1 hadn’t found it and here is why.
1 won’t go into details about the itinerary of my trip; 1 would need a guide book to recall all the places I visited. However, I did visit more than fifty Canadian cities and towns. 1
often found myself with fellow-members of the press, radio and television, and I had the great pleasure of rubbing shoulders with painters, sculptors and writers. It seems to me, therefore, that I have a genuine “sampling” of Canadian citizens among my memories. Once back in Quebec, I went on remembering the wonderful welcome everyone had given me, but I am still suffering under the conviction that English Canada has absolutely no interest in the awakening of French Canada or in our struggles, our history or reality. Between you and us there is a gap of cordial misunderstanding. free of any animosity but also lacking any real will to make even a gesture of friendship, one towards the other. Beyond Winnipeg, for example, the very existence of Quebec becomes a sort of myth, a folklore of trappers and traders. Please don’t think I am exaggerating; between one city and the next I was obliged to rewrite my lectures, to change my speeches so as to talk not about a revolution in Quebec, but literally about the fact that Quebec is there. As an example of nothing very significant: one day I was invited to appear on television in one of the cities on the Prairies. A young journalist, curious about Quebec, asked, “Do your children speak French at home?” When 1 said yes, he said something that temporarily stopped me in my tracks: “How clever of them!”
In the course of this Canadian tour I realized that the expression “speak white,” by which certain English Canadians mean that we arc to switch to
English at once, is always current in our country. When I involved you in my anger and revolt against this “speak white” your difficulty in believing me made me realize suddenly that English Canadians who use the phrase are neither well brought up nor well educated nor anything else. But, whatever their background, they exist and there are many of them. You have even had to admit their existence in the very heart of Quebec since, for every twenty French Canadians you encounter in my house or yours, fifteen can affirm that they have been treated to the discreditable “speak white.” I harvested it three times in the course of my trans-Canada tour. I had already received such an order in Montreal in a very smart bar, but all the same I jumped when first a headwaiter in a train, second a bank clerk in Manitoba, and third a very chic English woman in Vancouver frightened me with it because I had inadvertently addressed them in my own language. I should add that the lady asked me in these exact words: “Do you speak white?” — and that she didn’t understand why 1 replied curtly in English, “No, I don’t,” or why I walked out on the spot. I could, perhaps, mention the “white” anger of a good friend, a lieutenant colonel in the Canadian army, who was asked by his hostess at a cocktail party given in his honor in a small western city to “please speak white.” I could cite names, examples and places, even in Montreal, where this odious phrase is still thrown in our faces by English Canadians. I regret that I am not
capable of talking about this execrable subject with composure, but I should be betraying my pride in my French ancestry if I didn’t react violently in the face of open contempt. Don’t delude yourself, even if your understanding and respect for French Canada prohibits you from quite believing that an insult implying such contempt could be thought up for use against us, I assure you that French Canadians go on being shocked by it.
Let me sum up my hopes as a French Canadian. They are definite and precise.
I no longer want to be considered a second-class citizen in my own country.
I no longer want to think of my compatriots living outside Quebec struggling heroically for a right to speak and pray in French.
I no longer want to think of the unjust sacrifices to which parents in an English area are forced to agree in order to give their children a French education, when in fact their numbers justify the construction of French and Catholic schools.
I no longer want to believe that in 1967 there will still be places where it will be unacceptable to speak French.
I no longer want to have to prove in a book, an argument, a conversation or a newspaper article that Quebec is not still living, in the words of Goldwin Smith, “like an antediluvian animal preserved in Siberian ice.”
I refuse to look forward to a future time when one of my children will come home hurt because he has been ordered to “speak white.”
I will no longer accept bad service anywhere in Canada because I am French-speaking. I do not ask to be understood but I shall not tolerate contempt, bad manners, or sarcasm if I am overheard expressing myself in my own language by your compatriots.
Perhaps, to do justice to our respective grievances, you and I should have been specialists in the fields of history, sociology and politics. The lawyers, the professors and the politicians are the people who arc qualified to study and bring about the revision of the constitution, but the average Canadian suffers, without quite knowing why, from the results of the untimely decisions taken by our leaders. Our politicians have made and unmade Confederation. Will the real political thinkers of 1967 have the courage to write a constitution dictated by the sole desire to unite Canadians of every race and language in a single democratic concern for the collective, minority and individual rights of the citizens of Canada? If they lack a genuine national and bicultural concern, stripped of any small desire to limit the rights of this person for the benefit of that, the anonymous Canadian, French and English, never having a voice in major political decisions, will have to say with Saint-Denys Garneau:
I walk beside a joy
A joy which is not for me.
Well, I have had this joy all through our dialogue. If others around us will continue it, it will also be with the hope of a mission accomplished that
I sign myself in all friendship, and with love for this wonderful country,
SOLANGE CHAPUT ROLLAND DEAR SOLANGE:
“The arguments brought against. . . the obvious inference were peculiarly masculine. They were tainted with that decadence which befalls all human activities, art, literature, science, medicine, and law, when the game becomes less important than the rules.” This is a quotation from Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason which strikes me as being singularly apt in the circumstances. The “obvious inference” of our present Canadian dilemma is the logical impossibility of bringing about even a minimum of bilingualism and biculturalism in this country without the intervention of the federal government in some aspects of education. If French Canada is going to continue to insist that matters of education are exclusively the business of the province, then it will indeed be arguing that the rules are more important than the game. Our motto is to be “Provincial autonomy at all costs.” The other nine provinces are each, individually and on their own, to go out and become bilingual and bicultural without any help from French Canada.
It is doubtless a limitation of the feminine as opposed to the masculine view of things that the English-Canadian mother, informed that her children can't have French - Canadian teachers to teach them French because Quebec can't afford to train them in
such numbers and the federal government isn’t allowed to, will not bow her head before the majesty of the law, but will say, “If the law is as silly and illogical as that, then get rid of it.”
To speak a second language is a lesson in humility, and there is no reason why that lesson should be confined to French Canadians. I have seen you come back from presiding over a conference which lasted from nine in the morning till midnight, entirely in English, and you were so tired you could hardly keep your head up. I know that the same thing happens to me when I am obliged to listen, think and speak in French all day long. What English Canada has done to French Canada on the federal level and in a major segment of industry is, in effect, to force French Canadians to speak English for their entire working lives. I am not proud of a people who would illegally, unconstitutionally and inhumanely force another people who are supposed to be their equals to undergo the strain of being perpetually obliged to express themselves in a language other than their own.
You have made some harsh remarks about your fellow nationals; I have saved up the worst of mine for this final letter. A tendency to regard people who speak other languages as cither peculiar or slightly subhuman is an abiding and disastrous characteristic of the English-speaking peoples. It plagued the English all through their days of empire; it is plaguing the Americans in the world of today. Because I do regard a failure of sympa-
thetic imagination as the root of most evil, when I say that English Canadians sin against French Canadians by the very fact of their refusal to recognize the equality of the French language in Canada, and to learn it when they can, I am accusing them of a stupidity and an inhumanity far surpassing anything you or I have said against French Canadians.
At the base of the whole problem described by that one word “bilingualism” are the elementary and high schools of English Canada. The French language should be regarded as a compulsory subject from Grade I. As Dr. Wilder Penfield has pointed out over and over again (in proper neurological language, not in my garbled version), it is anatomically easier to learn a second language before the age of twelve, when those paths in the brain most receptive to language, which have been open till then, begin to close. If the neurological argument is not convincing, there is the added psychological fact that language habits become more fixed year by year. You speak much better English than I do French, I think most probably because you started speaking English as a small child while I only began speaking French when I was sixteen.
Across English Canada, then, French should be a compulsory subject through university. If English Canadians want to lapse back into unilingualism after that, it will be their affair, but if they are intending to go into business, federal politics, or the federal civil service, they will be making a serious mistake in the first instance and a fatal one in the second and third. A bilingual federal government will have no use for employees, and the Canadian people no use for politicians, who can't speak French. As for the future businessmen, French is one of the languages of the Common Market and a sister language to the Spanish and Portuguese of all Latin America. It would seem a great pity for them deliberately to abandon their inherent advantage of having been born in an Anglo-French nation.
And the French departments of the schools and universities of English Canada must be staffed by French Canadians. This, if you like, is the price your people are going to have to pay as their share in the continuance of the pact of Confederation. I do not think there is any other solution. GWETHALYN GRAHAM ★