LOSING ON THE PLAINS OF CORNWALL
How French-English tensions are tearing Friendly City apart
“St. Lawrence High School,” explained the valedictorian of the class of 1960, “is a living example of different races and different creeds living at complete harmony in a common quest for advancement. It is a definite contradiction of the belief that French and English, Protestant and Catholic, cannot share the same viewpoints or seek the same goals.”
I remember, not vividly, penciling out those words while the CNR’s milk run rumbled and jolted over the 250 miles eastward from Toronto to Cornwall: my first trip home from university, returning to the scene of triumphs, last official business with SLHS for John Gault, high-school superstar, capping brilliant career as student council president, year book editor, cadet commander and all the rest of that musical comedy fantasy that died with the Fifties. I believed those words. So did most everybody else in Cornwall. It was a matter of civic pride that Cornwall was showing the country a thing or two about tolerance and understanding. We always took for granted that there was a 50-50 FrenchEnglish split in the city, and really we didn’t want to know which linguistic group dominated, if one did. We were all working together.
We also thought of ourselves as a Canada in miniature, as indeed we were, as indeed, unfortunately perhaps, Cornwall still is. Political analysts have long described the federal riding of Stormont, which Cornwall dominates, as a bellwether. It has for at least 20 years elected an MP who would be a member of the government, and the vote in Stormont has usually reflected the popular vote across Canada. The mood of the country, it can be safely said, can just about be determined by examining the mood of Cornwall’s 47,000 people. The mutual pride of the Fifties (in retrospect I suppose you’d call it smugness, but it wasn’t, not then) and the desire for cooperation and understanding and accommodation have been washed away,
leaving anger and sadness, frustration and confusion. The Friendly City, as Cornwall had, perhaps overenthusiastically, called itself, is split along racial lines as it hasn’t been since the 1930s: a sizable part of the French community has chosen to isolate itself; a majority of the English community isolated itself in response; a group in the middle is isolated from both.
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St. Lawrence High School-Ecole Secondaire St. Laurent, my alma mater, opened in 1950, the first bilingual high school in Ontario. It was built in the east end of the city where nearly all the French Cornwallites lived. Until St. Lawrence-St. Laurent, French-speaking students, most of whom came out of French-language separate schools, were at a disadvantage. The only other high school in the city at the time was the ultra-Anglo Cornwall Collegiate and Vocational School. Considering the language and cultural barriers and often inferior primary-school training it was something of a miracle if a French kid ever made it through CCVS. In many cases, too, his parents discouraged higher education for him; his father, after all, had arrived in Cornwall from the farms and farm towns of the surrounding Ottawa valley with a grade five education, and he had a good job and security. Besides, the family needed the money, and there were lots of jobs around.
In any case, CCVS was a hostile environment for a French student. St. Lawrence-St. Laurent was designed to make French students feel at home, and to expose English and French students to one another. In the Thirties and Forties, young French and English kids rarely met, except in gang fights somewhere in the area of Brennan’s Corners, a local equivalent of the Brandenburg Gate. Before I went to St. Lawrence, in 1954,1 don’t recall ever talking to a real French Canadian, except maybe some friends of my parents, and then not about anything important. I came from the West Front, and a Waspish public school. But, just as its founders hoped it would, St. Lawrence-St. Laurent changed all of the perceptions, and became a symbol for the community. The first principal was Remi Lalonde, and the vice-principal was Bob Robinson; when Lalonde left, and Robinson became principal, René Brisson became his vice-principal. A large majority of the teachers spoke French and English fluently; most of them had come from the French-language University of Ottawa. French was spoken and as much vital business as possible was transacted in both languages: assemblies and announcements, for example. Of course the school wasn’t truly bilingual because while nearly all the French students spoke English, perfectly or at least intelligibly, none of the English students spoke any French. Where possible, however, classes were offered in French. No matter what the defects, though, St. Lawrence-St. Laurent created in all of us a bilingualism of the mind: the very atmosphere of the place worked against our biases of ignorance. It’s impossible to support a football team by cheering only for Billing and Summerville and Bowden, and booing Racine, Payette and Ayotte.
Cornwall’s shining example dazzled in the Fifties and early Sixties, began to dim just before the Seventies, and sputtered out in the spring of 1973 when about 700 French-speaking students from St. Lawrence-St. Laurent went on strike, demanding that the school become — as the letter of the law of Ontario allows —a French-language high school. In other words, they wanted the English students out, and the naïve experiment, as they called it, to end. They wanted St. Lawrence building and only St. Lawrence building; no other option would do; they would not accept occupancy of a new Cornwall high school which will open next fall. It was important to destroy the symbol, though that wasn’t their public reason.
It was a gut-punch to the old, Englishspeaking families of Cornwall, especially for those who had children attending St. Lawrence-St. Laurent, for those who, in the spirit of community that existed in Cornwall long before Ottawa and Queen’s Park had turned bilingualism/biculturalism into a political issue, were struggling with French in night classes, and learning it along with their children, and speaking it — often embarrassingly badly, but with Bob Stanfield doggedness — at predominantly French gatherings. And it was a slap in the face fof all the Frenchorigin, bilingual Cornwallites who had, in some cases, spent lifetimes furthering the cause of this bilingualism of the mind: they were sad and they were hurt, and they didn’t even have the comfort of a pole to rally around because they were inexorably in the middle. On one side they were being told: “You’re not Frenchmen any more.” And on the other, all of their motivations and actions were mistrusted because, in fact, they still have French names and still speak the language daily. Stories have emerged from this neár-disaster about families in which parent-child and sibling relationships have been severed, either by mutual silence or by screaming battles. In the upper middle class “mixed” social circles, the subject is delicately ignored, but last spring and in early summer, when people were with “their own kind,” it dominated all conversation. I don’t think, in the 20 years I lived in Cornwall or the 12 years I’ve been an occasional visitor there, that I’d ever heard the kind of racist remarks tossed out so frequently then. Again and again 1 heard people say, “We beat the bastards at the Plains of Abraham and by Jesus we can do it again.”
The decline of understanding began in 1968, with the passage of Ontario’s Bill 141, which provided for the establishment of French-language high schools in the province. About that time, Cornwall’s three French-language Catholic high schools folded. And when they folded a public-school alternative was demanded, and their departure put a tremendous strain on the St. LawrenceSt. Laurent facilities. For various reasons the local board of education didn’t build a necessary new school which would almost certainly have become a French high school. One trustee, Sam McLeod, a sandy little Scot from a nearby farm town, once said: “There’ll be a French school here over my dead body.” Others were more subtle, but the fact is the school never got built (approval came this spring, two days before the student strike began). This put pressure on St. Lawrence-St. Laurent. Three years ago it was forced to go on a shift system, and one of the shifts became a French-language school in effect, over the three years. In the 1972-1973 school from the old concept and dropped the St. Lawrence half of its name. It gave itself new colors, adding red to the traditional blue-and-white, and fielded its own football team. The other shift maintained the traditional, bilingual identity. Ill feeling increased between the shift occupants, especially among teachers.
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But the problem in Cornwall was more than closed schools and overcrowding. Cornwall is a plodding and unsophisticated little city, a mill town, closer in mentality to Manchester and Lyon and Chicago than to London, Paris or New York. Its liberalism is honest, having evolved over a long period of time. It wasn’t carried there from outside, nor was it a response to legislation. Most of Cornwall’s people were untouched directly by the Sixties, by the unbelievable intellectual revolution that was going on so quickly in so many places in the world, and therefore when the time came it was hard for them to understand the processes that were taking shape.
The response of the English majority in Cornwall to the “separatism” of a French minority (perhaps even a minority within the French-speaking minority) is very similar to the response of the white liberals expelled by the black militants from CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in 1967-68: anger, disillusionment, confusion. Goddamn it, they had tried. They were willing to go half way, and what did they get for their efforts? What the hell did these people want, anyway?
The English-speaking people of Cornwall have, in effect, been indicted by history without ever having been advised of the “crime” committed. They have become the victims of an historical inevitability: a group of the people they’d been attempting to “meet half way” had run completely past them without their noticing it; there’s been a different drummer pounding away in the East End for a long time, but they either didn’t hear him or they chose not to hear him, or they simply refused to believe that any significant number of people would march to his beat. None of them noticed, either, that the French identity in Cornwall was slowly but surely being eroded, and if they had it probably wouldn’t have mattered much because they wouldn’t have understood its significance. In the working-class town of Cornwall, in the world of smalltown Canada, there’s not much abstract philosophizing. Jobs, raising families, living a comfortable life, taxes, hockey, slow-pitch softball, keeping the kids clean, education and who’s-screwingwhom — these are the things that really matter. The aspiration is mainly to get along, and the energies are devoted to just that. And generally speaking, those are the concerns felt in the French homes as well as in the English. Even those most responsible for bringing about the split in the community make no mention of persecution or discrimination — that would be more easily understood, but there is no case to be made for it and nobody’s tried to make one. It is not as real as that. How does a woman, suddenly embracing the most radical wing of the feminist movement, explain to her husband that while he’s a decent man and a pretty good lovemaker, she’d rather go off by herself and masturbate? It’s an imperfect analogy, but it does illustrate the point, and it also ties the Franco-Ontarian liberation movement to one of its cousins: the Franco-Ontarian. while he still can, wants to define himself in his own terms.
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Paul Rouleau was born in Cornwall. His father was at one time reeve of Cornwall township. His mother was a Clarke and spoke no French, and before she married his father she swore she’d never live in the East End. Eventually, she did. Theirs was one of those “mixed” marriages that did not, as so many others did and would do, erode the French presence in Cornwall from more than 50% in 1951 to about 38% today; usually, when French married English, the language of the home became English, and the children spoke it. But Paul Rouleau grew up speaking both languages. He became a lawyer, returned to Cornwall and set up practice. He was considered a model citizen by all, a young man who would go far, certainly a young man who would do well in politics. Now, in his mid-forties, he still looks good, except that he’ll never be regarded as a model citizen again. It was Rouleau, you see, who stirred up this whole mess — at least that’s the consensus in Anglo-Cornwall — Rouleau and a bunch of outsiders (who, in Cornwall, are sometimes defined as anybody whose ancestry does not trace directly to the United Empire Loyalists). Everybody liked Paul Rouleau until Paul Rouleau began making noises about the French identity in Cornwall, and began demanding a French high school to preserve and strengthen what was left of it. That was in the late Sixties. In October. 1970, during the Quebec kidnapping crisis and the War Measures Act, there was a rumor in Cornwall that Rouleau, “the separatist,” was in custody. Actually he was in Europe, but the rumor persisted.
“We rocked the boat,” Rouleau says. “Our forefathers wouldn’t have: they weren’t as strong professionally or educationally.” On public platforms and at high levels of government, he and a few other Franco-Cornwallites began the quest for a French high school even before there was legislation to allow it. but the opposition was vast and it came from both the and French ends of the city. The older people, French and English, either believed strongly in the St. Lawrence-St. Laurent formula, or they didn’t want Rouleau’s kind of radical departure, or they simply didn’t care, but in not caring they preferred to have things remain the same.
But on March 14. 1973. the French shift students, the St. Laurent students (as they were by then calling themselves) took to the streets to challenge the local school board and to denounce the bilingualism as practised on the other, mixed-language shift. They were openly supported by a number of their teachers, and joined in their marches and parades and demonstrations by a number of adults, generally speaking the intellectual elite of the Cornwall French community. They were also supported openly by some French-parish members of the Roman Catholic clergy, and tacitly by the Northern Ontarioborn, young bishop of the diocese. They got massive coverage in the French language Quebec media, and the local French radio station and cable televi-
sion channel, both controlled, incidentally, by the father of one of the strike leaders. The town was flabbergasted, shocked, and angry, but nobody really believed that they would get their primary demand: that St. Lawrence High School be turned over completely to them. They were only 700 after all, and the school could take twice that number; on the other shift, the mixed-shift, there were more than 1,200 students, with a French-speaking majority, and all were against the strike and the demands.
The French student strike lasted for 18 days, without any particularly nasty incident. Morale was high. The people in charge, whether they were students or adults (that question is still unanswered and never will be) did a masterful job, and they won. The Anglo-dominated board of education refused, from the outset, to grant the student demand, which was for the St. Lawrence-St. Laurent building. So the Ontario government. which was under some pressure from the Liberals and New Democrats and from the Globe and Mail editorial writers, sent mediator-extraordinaire Tom Symons down to get it worked out and quieted down. Symons somehow convinced the board to turn the school over to the French group, not in the fall of 1973, w'hen they demanded it, but in the fall of 1974 when they knew they could realistically get it.
One of the leaders of the student strike, perhaps its architect and certainly its philosopher, its Rousseau, was Luc Bertrand, a slim handsome 18-year-old.
I spent hours with him, arguing and agreeing, and being terribly impressed. “We don’t want to fall into the big American melting pot,” he told me at one point. “I cherish my culture; I want to be Canadian, bilingual, and to have a culture I can identify with. The school board wants assimilation; all their strategies are set up for that. They want to Anglicize our names . . .”
What began to emerge, for me, about the Cornwall crisis is that overall it was nobody’s fault. It is a legitimate disagreement well within the limits of Canadian liberal democracy. Bill 141 is a just law, but that doesn’t make it a fair one. The student strikers, and the sizable minority of the community which supported them, were simply seeking to fulfill a perceived need. (“We were entitled to the school,” Paul Rouleau says, “so why shouldn’t we take it. They said we could have both languages, so dammit we want both!”) The school board, dominated by Anglos by more than twoto-one, can probably be faulted for intransigence and in some instances for bigotry; but to distill the whole issue down to basics, the trustees were really protecting a Cornwall tradition, and the institution in which that tradition was embodied. And they were expressing the majority desire of the community which elected them.
There is no denying that there are racist elements in both camps in Cornwall, but they are small, and they cancel one another out. No, it’s not as simple as that: there are no demonstrably bad guys, no place for the blame to be deposited. The fact that this did not deter the Globe and Mail from assessing culpability to the English-majority board is more a reflection of that newspaper’s newfound liberalism than of the real situation. The English people of Cornwall didn’t deserve that kind of assessment, any more than they deserved the rebuke they got from their MP, Lucien Lamoureux, Speaker of the House of Commons, at one of the many emotional peaks reached in the community during the student strike. Addressing his AngloCornwall constituents he said, with selfrighteousness: “Open your eyes and your hearts to understand what we want.” To say that, to the people of Cornwall, was worse than telling them they were a bunch of racist-pig bigots. Lucien Lamoureux, who has won his seat in every election since 1962, was admired and respected and supported by the English community consistently. They were proud of him, as proud as any of his French constituents, and they identified with him as much. But there he stood, like an unreasonable father, telling one kid to give his favorite toy to the other, not only give it to him but to do so graciously.
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The English of Cornwall had a right to expect more from him than that. After all, he’d been brought to Cornwall by the once-beloved Lionel Chevrier (beloved until the Seaway debacle which ultimately brought to the area not the promised boom and prosperity, but bust and unemployment) and because it had always appeared that he was an equitable man. Yes, he was the law partner of Paul Rouleau, but not many people suspected that they shared the same views. The word is that Lamoureux will not run in the Cornwall area again. Chevrier, for many years a federal cabinet minister, left when he became president of the Seaway Authority, and later ran in a safer, Montrealarea riding.
Lamoureux’s response, in crisis, indicates just how far removed are governments and their evolving ideologies from the people and the realities. The English people of Cornwall understood the importance and the desirability of bilingualism-biculturalism and they practised it progressively, if imperfectly, until the spring of 1973. It was an insult to them, and all they’d tried to do, to be lectured on the subject by Lucien Lamoureux. Bill 141, out of Queen’s Park, was, for the Cornwall area, an impediment to progress; however well-intended, however important in other parts of the province, its application in Cornwall has been nearly disastrous. The people of Cornwall, the majority of the English and the majority of the French, had been playing by the old rules, maybe with a tattered deck, but it was still a pretty good game.
Understandably — and sadly — the Anglo-Cornwallite has been driven into isolation, a bitter sort of reaction. He’s saying things he thought he’d never hear himself say, still privately among fellowEnglish, and meaning them. And, ominously, he has taken an interest in the right-wing, Anglo-racist Canadian Loyalists Association.
Shortly after the strike began, and illfeeling escalated, an advertisement for membership in the Loyalists appeared in the local newspaper’s classified section. A number of people in Cornwall began to receive unsolicited Loyalists literature, among them an East End Frenchman named Eugene Legault, probably because he was the major public protagonist in the battle against St. Lawrence-St. Laurent becoming an allFrench school. On the other hand, you can’t go by names in Cornwall. There are Primeaus and Jodoins who speak no French, and O’Malleys and Mackenzies who speak very little English. The Loyalists, based in Ottawa, begin with the premise that there is no legal justification for two official languages in Canada, and end with the prediction that, if the government’s initiative toward a bilingual Canada is not stopped, Canada will become a French-speaking republic in North America.
It’s not that the English of Cornwall believe the Loyalists’ version of history, or share the predictions. But the Loyalists offer some kind of affirmation and solace.
But there have been more direct effects. A number of English Catholics, offended by the support given the other side by the priests and the bishop, and incensed by the public testimony of a number of French separate school students that they were punished for speak-' ing English anywhere in the schools, have withdrawn their tax support for the separate school system. If they act in
number — and there are many of them — they could cripple the system.
A plan by the school board to introduce French immersion courses into the public school system, from kindergarten on, has been all but scuttled. One man, speaking at a meeting in the uppermiddle-class Riverdale district in the west end, said: “When a French person asks for a French-only education, he’s considered a patriot. But when an English person asks for English-only education, he’s considered a bigot.”
Some other people I know have stopped shopping at Lalonde’s market in the East End. Lalonde’s has the best meat in town, but these people have vowed to never give a Frenchman another cent. Cornwall is too small an arena for that kind of blind lashing out. There’s no place to take shelter from it. Everybody is confronted, daily, in fact not theory.
And the French-school advocates haven’t been gracious in victory, nor has the school board been sensible in defeat. As soon as the decision was made the winners began a blatant recruiting program for more students. It was vital to them that enough students would sign up for the all-French school to ensure that the St. Lawrence-St. Laurent building be theirs. Obviously, if they can muster only 800 or 900 students, as some people predict, there’s no way they’ll get St. Lawrence-St. Laurent next fall. Instead they’ll have to go to' the new school, which will accommodate a maximum 1,200 to St. Lawrence’s 1,500. The effect of this recruiting, should it be successful, could destroy the bilingual nature of two other area high schools patterned on the old St. Lawrence-St. Laurent formula. This kind of action has further infuriated the English and moderate French, and kept wounds open.
Then, early in June the trustees, unwilling to leave bad enough alone, fired one teacher from the French-language shift, Jacques Boyer, and did not renew the contract of another. Father Paul Besozzi, for their alleged active role in the student strike. The result was more demonstrations by parents and students, by other teachers in the area, and a continuation/exacerbation of the conflict.
When I attended St. Lawrence High School-Ecole Secondaire St. Laurent from 1954 to 1960, it never occurred to me that a great many of my fellow students, in fact a majority of them, were not being fully accommodated by the system. Despite its intent, and despite its attempts, St. Lawrence was still an English-language school serving a predominantly French student body. To be sure, it was better than CCVS for them, but not ideal. Most of them came to St. Lawrence having learned to think in French, and found that in most cases, especially in the higher grades, they had to speak and write in English, because their classmates, like me, couldn’t take instruction in French. Years after I left, as I became more sensitive to human needs, I began to wonder about those difficulties; recently I asked some of the people I went to school with in the Fifties, French people, and they affirmed the difficulty. They talked about all their friends who’d dropped out because of the language barrier, because they were discouraged; I checked it with my old year books, and it was true — by grade 13 there were few French names, a one-to-five ratio as compared to the maybe three-to-one ratio in grade nine. In the Sixties though, things got better.
But I was oblivious at the time, as were most of my Anglo classmates, as was the community in general. We were perhaps the most obtuse generation of the century; very little mattered to us other than enjoying the postwar prosperity and taking our rightful places in the middle class; we were, if not loutish, at least insensitive. If the French Fact had emerged then I doubt we’d have handled it less clumsily than it is being handled now. ■