Backstage

The two faces of Montreal

The image is based on the language wars. The reality is a city that is safe, fun in summer— and bilingual.

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 4 1997
Backstage

The two faces of Montreal

The image is based on the language wars. The reality is a city that is safe, fun in summer— and bilingual.

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 4 1997

The two faces of Montreal

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Backstage

The image is based on the language wars. The reality is a city that is safe, fun in summer— and bilingual.

In Canada, every city becomes known by at least one defining cliché and characteristic—whether its leaders like it or not. Mention Toronto, and people think of either the home of Bay Street and Big Business, or simply the city the rest of the country loves to loathe. Calgary, despite its increasing clout and cosmopolitanism, is framed by the images of the oil patch and the Stampede. Vancouver is the Gateway to Asia, and the porch to the country’s most spectacular scenery. Halifax is the harbor, the Citadel, and the landing strip for rich Americans and Germans heading for their coastal summer mansions.

Then there is Montreal, home of language wars, faded grandeur and a fast-talking way of life that is both desperate and dazzling. Montreal has two faces: the formal image it presents to the rest of the world, and the informal manner its inhabitants adopt with each other. Any visitor relying solely on the media for information would quickly become convinced that a full-scale linguistic war is imminent. On one level, they would not be wrong. On another, they could not be further from the truth.

True, reminders of tension are always present. Last week marked the 30th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s cry of “Vive le Québec libre” from a balcony at city hall, and about 3,000 sovereigntists showed up to mark the occasion. Quebec deputy premier Bernard Landry, a politician who feels his every thought must be shared with a microphone, worried that a new disease has crept into Quebec’s hospitals—“institutional bilingualism.” As a result, he promised, the government will cut back on the number of hospitals obliged to offer services in English.

And Quebec bureaucrats have threatened small businesses with legal action for operating unilingual English Web sites and giving out English-only business cards. Some municipalities that have street signs with the words “St.” or “Ave.” have been told to block out those offending English abbreviations.

But there have been many other stories recently receiving equal, or greater prominence. Among them: the city glided smoothly from Fête nationale celebrations to Canada Day to festivals of fireworks, jazz and comedy with barely a pause to refresh. The bilingual Just For Laughs festival brought together anglophones and some of Quebec’s leading francophone pro-sovereigntists for a comedy night in which each side cheerfully spoofed the other. More than 4,000 people attended. Festival organizer Andy Nulman, a frenetic figure who makes Jim Carrey seem subdued, has made the event the place to be in North America for both established stars, such as Roseanne, and breaking talent, such as Voyage Immobile, a group that blends puppetry, dance and music. Montreal’s hotels are reporting the busiest summer since the 1976 Olympic Games.

And there was no cause to report what did not take place: Montreal remained as safe by night as ever, with little street crime. Ninety-nine per cent of anglophones and francophones did not argue with each other about language—or anything else. Next month, the Can West Global network will open a new affiliate in Quebec, giving anglophones a second private television station. One Global official says the coverage will reflect the belief that “listeners are sick of hearing about language.”

As a city with two faces, Montrealers often find both distorted for different ends. Every anglophone in Montreal, for example, pleads guilty to Deliberate Doublespeak: they roundly denounce Quebec’s language laws and their woeful lot in life to each other, but are shocked by the suggestion that they might ever live anywhere else. The only Montrealers who still mock Toronto are anglophones: francophones, on the other hand, are usually effusive in their praise. Most francophones need no prompting to deliver lectures on the danger of creeping bilingualism—even as they regard the ability to speak English fluently as the height of cool. On downtown Ste-Catherine Street East one afternoon recently, a group of francophone teenagers vigorously mocked one of their own who wanted to see a new Hollywood movie—dubbed into French. “Whatsamatter,” said one, in English, “your English not good enough?”

All of which may explain Premier Lucien Bouchard’s continuing popularity among francophones, since his personal position on language directly reflects that ethos. An enthusiastic proponent of French-first legislation, he speaks English at home to his American wife and spends most of his summers with in-laws in California.

But at this time of year, leaving Montreal—even for California—is more exile than escape. Had Bouchard gone, for example, to L’Express—the St-Denis Street gathering spot of the chattering classes that is so famous it does not even need a sign—he would have seen what he is missing. There, among others, Le Journal de Montreal’s political columnist, Michel C. Auger, was lunching with a friend who is an anglophone former Montrealer. As might be expected under the circumstances, the talk between Auger—the province’s most widely read columnist—and the visitor soon grew passionate and heated. The cause: Auger’s ruthless, clinical—and admittedly expert—dissection of the problems with the Montreal Expos’ lineup, and why they will not win a wild-card spot in the National League playoffs. The visitor, more hopeful, disagreed. Even at L’Express, politics is forgotten at the lunch table and just about everywhere else in Montreal on a clear, fest-filled July day. And for that one month a year, there is nowhere else you would rather be.