Lessons from Quebec  By Delinda McCann

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Hubby and I decided to take a few days and visit Quebec City, Canada. The city is beautiful, and to say it is very French is an understatement. Quebec seems to be more French than France. I’d say it is the center out of which all the Frenchness in Canada flows.

Since, I visit Vancouver and Victoria BC fairly often, I thought Quebec might be similar with perhaps a bit more French spoken. I’ve often laughed on my visits through British Columbia about all the signs being in French and English and how redundant they appear to me.

Loren and I have traveled to France and French Polynesia, but nowhere, have I had to rely on my college level, but long forgotten, French as I did in Quebec. I came prepared to chuckle over signs in French and English. I didn’t see much English anywhere.   All day, I translated menus for Hubby and read signs. He may have had a more colorful trip than most tourists because of my inaccurate translations of signs on buildings and shop fronts. I confess, when I got tired, I started making stuff up. “Oh look Honey, shoes made out of mushrooms,”–or whatever.

While it is fun to be amused over my challenges in a forgotten second language, Hubby saw a display in the museum that shocked him. He knew Quebec was French until some treaty gave the territory to England. What he’d never learned before was that the English attacked the city and conquered it. The citizens were not happy. The people of Quebec had no say in their fates, so like many powerless peoples, they rebelled in the only way they could, refusing to speak English and clinging to French architecture and culture.

The rest of Canada seems to tolerate the uniqueness of Quebec. I’ve heard friends from Vancouver or Yukon Territory or Alberta snort and say, “Those people. They really are not like the rest of Canadians.” An eye roll frequently accompanies this statement. However, Canadians in general are pretty nice about most things, except hockey, so this bi-cultural arrangement works for them, most of the time. They’ve had some bumps along the way with threats to secede, but have worked things out.

I guess the significant fact here is that the people of Quebec became part of Canada against their will. While some people recognized the benefits of being part of England—particularly an end to constant bickering with their English neighbors, they saw no reason to change their identity and language.

While Quebec has formed a decent relationship with the rest of Canada, these people have prompted me to ask, “How many other places around the world are like Quebec? Cultural groups may be aligned with a particular nation, but don’t identify with the majority in the country?”

Looking at the sharp language and cultural differences in Quebec City forced me to think about civil unrest around the globe. How many times do we hear of rebel forces here or there, who are no different, really, from the people of Quebec. They just want to speak their own language, eat their own food, and worship in their own way, or to go about their lives without the threat of genocide hanging over them.

As I continued to think about this problem, it occurred to me that the world has a wonderful resource in the people of Quebec and Montreal. Perhaps these people should be our advisors in how to handle a situation where a group with different ethnic ties from their government comes into conflict with their government over those differences.   I’d like to hear their opinions.

 

Delinda McCann writes general fiction based on her experience as a social psychologist and has published five novels. She expresses her sense of humor in many of her short stories. She’s also published numerous professional articles on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Youth At-Risk. The professional articles are rather academic and dry, but Delinda pulls what she knows about human behavior, disabilities and youth into her fiction.

 

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14 thoughts on “Lessons from Quebec  By Delinda McCann

  1. Clayton Bye Post author

    As a Canadian who has come face-to-face with the “Frenchness” of Canada I may be able to offer a different viewpoint.

    First, we have the sign issue. The reason British Columbia has signs in both French and English is that a number of decades ago our then French Prime Minister offered an olive branch to Quebec–which, at the time, was seriously considering separating from the rest of Canada (all it takes is a majority vote during a provincial referendum). His olive branch was branched. The first twig was the agreement that Quebec could require its people to speak both French and English when applying for jobs. As all Quebec students learn “English as a second language,” this meant that the schools at the time in the rest of the Provinces had to offer “French as a second language”courses. Only seems fair,right? The rest of Canada was not amused. The second twig on the olive branch was that all businesses in Canada had to display both French and English signage for their stores, on their products and–hell, even street signs began to appear in the correct bilingual form. I don’t think anyone has a complete idea of the cost involved in the national change-over. I’m sure it was unbelievable in its magnitude.

    End of story, right? No. Some time later a different provincial political party came to power in Quebec. While it was unsuccessful in bringing about the separation of Quebec from Canada, it did repeal the federally mandated signage law (Now that was an interesting feat!). No English signage was to be forced upon the populace any longer. A collective sigh went up and the bilingual signs came down. The rest of Canada watched in disbelief. The olive branch was broken. The provinces, in turn, were released from the Federally binding law and allowed to change their signage at will. Some did and some didn’t. It depended on the depth of your pockets and the amount of anger you harboured for the Quebecois. Over the ensuing decades, much has changed, but food products, etc. still appear in French and English across the nation; French, as a second language, is still offered in all schools; but bilingual signage is getting quite hard to find.

    Second, we have the language issue. You must speak both French and English if you want to get anywhere in your career in Quebec. But only federal jobs are routinely posted as requiring fluency in both French and English in the rest of the country. And the schism between French and English is still completely apparent the further north you go in Quebec: Listen carefully to conversations when it becomes apparent you are English; you’ll almost certainly hear the prejudicial slur “L’Englais!” And if you are traveling with a French person, allow them to order–if you want to get restaurant service at all. Heaven help you if you’re all alone in this hostile land. In fact, a visit to Northern Quebec will make you understand the schism in Quebec, itself. The North wants to separate, but the south, with its large cities, wants to maintain its lifestyle (largely due to unrestricted trade with the rest of Canada’s Provinces) and, thus, doesn’t want to separate.

    Oh, it may look to an outsider like Canada has successfully assimilated a stand-alone culture within its borders, but the truth is Quebec, on any given day, might just offer up the extra couple of percentage points that has kept it from voting itself out of Canada. What then?

    Reply
    1. Delinda

      Clayton thank you for your comments. You give a more forceful commentary on what as an outsider I found surprising. You are right about ordering food. Hubby did not order our food unless I drilled him on how to pronounce Beouf. What will happen if Quebec gets those extra votes? Will the rest of the country cheer and say “Good riddance?” I suspect that no matter what happens Canada will behave in a civilized manner. They are a model and a resource for the rest of the world facing similar cultural issues. I wonder how does Canada differ from the Ukraine, Syria, NW South Africa, and many other places where a cultural minority is forced to live in a foreign country?

      Reply
  2. Kenneth Weene

    I remember a childhood vacation trip to Quebec City. A beautiful place with a grand fortress and hotel. Since then I have also been to Montreal, a city as cosmopolitan as any in the world. The Province of Quebec is indeed worth the visit. However, that is not the only area of French culture in Canada. New Brunswick has a substantial number of people whose roots go back to France as does Prince Edward Island. There are, not, however, that many French in Nova Scotia. At the time the British conquered French Canada, the fishing grounds off Cape Breton were to valuable to allow those who might want to sell those fish to France or who might wish to even break free of the Dominion of Canada (the colonial name) and reunite with Paris. The exile of the Nova Scotian French to far away Louisiana is the background for the wonderful poem Evangeline and for the evolution of the Cajun people who so enrich New Orleans and its environs.

    By the way, did you know that not too far off the coast of Canada, right near the Province of Newfoundland, there are two French islands, Miquelon and Saint Pierre? I’ve never been there but understand they are quite remarkable places. From them, France maintained some right to those rich fishing grounds.

    Of course, all this political defining and relocation took place without any consideration of people. Nor did anybody consult the areas first inhabitants, referred do as First Nations in Canada. History has a way of just happening.

    Reply
    1. Linda Hales

      Oh Ken, you know your Canadian history so well. So glad you spoke of the exiled French from Nova Scotia to New Orleans – culture doesn’t get richer than that. The New Brunswick French are well known but there is a more isolated settlement known as the Acadian Peninsula, near Tracadie, undeniable for its uniqueness and cuisines. They give new meaning to their seafood dishes…especially tourtierre. Fortunately for Canada, the New Brunswick French were allowed to stay.

      Quebec City is my favorite place in Canada and anyone visiting there in the winter will enjoy the Quebec City Carnival.

      Wonderful piece Delinda! So proud to be Canadian!

      Reply
  3. Micki Peluso

    This was a fascinating discourse by Delinda and Ken and Clay as well. My brother moved to Quebec in his twenties and fell in love with it. As a school boy he had trouble with English grammar but in Quebec he learned to speak like a Frenchman. He ran a bed and breakfast there and truly loves his home. He’s a well known artist who paints unigue houses in Quebec and now lives in the city, rather than the small country farm he loved for so many years. He’s even changed the spelling of his name from Stephen to Stephan( the French way) and will never leave his beloved Quebec.

    I’d love to travel there one day, perhaps when God gives me wings to fly.

    Reply
  4. Salvatore Buttaci

    For a time my older brother Alfonso lived in Montreal which I got to visit back then, my first foreign country! I loved it there and for a time in my later years thought about changing residence and moving there. As for Quebec City, I recall the Disneyesque look of it, the ice everywhere! This excellent article brought me back for an enjoyable visit. thanks to Delinda!

    Reply
  5. Clayton Bye Post author

    Yes, there is no escaping the beauty of the Quebec landscape, and Quebec City is a wonderful way to take a step into history. As for Montreal? I have always loved her culture. I feel it even more strongly now that both of my adult sons live there.

    Reply
  6. Cynthia B Ainsworthe

    Delinda, Thank you for this interesting piece on French Canada. I’ve visited Quebec and Montreal. It was nice to speak French again, though the locals understood my Parisian French, I could not always understand their Canadian French. They are very proud of their heritage. Your piece captured the essence of their culture. Thanks again for a most enjoyable read.

    Reply
    1. Delinda

      Cynthia, I do not understand Canadian French more than a few words although I had no trouble understanding in Paris. It is a different dialect. Then, the place I’ve had the most serious language problems was at Kings Cross Station in London. I have no idea what language is spoken there.

      Reply
  7. Charline Ratcliff

    I so appreciated reading this piece and its subsequent replies, and replies to replies. I’ve been to a few (small) areas in Canada, but it’s a huge country and even were I a Canadian citizen/resident I doubt I’d be able to fully experience the country in its entirety. I’ve not been lucky enough (yet) to visit Quebec – but the thing that sticks out most in my mind is the conversation that I had with a co-worker about fifteen years ago. His name was Gus and he was half-French, half-some-other-nationality(s), but wow did he love Quebec! Born in the states, his citizenship belonged to the USA – however his heart belonged to Quebec. He loved this particular city so much that he looked into buying a house there, but apparently one cannot own property in Quebec without being 100% French-Canadian… ? Needless to say, he was exceptionally disappointed.

    Reply
  8. Patricia Dusenbury

    The Museum of Quebec’s history exhibition made a lasting impression on me, but it was the more recent history, World War !!I and the decade afterwards. It was hard to believe that this province, so close to us, experienced the isolation of the Maurice Duplessis years and the power that the Roman Catholic Church, which ran must schools and hospitals, over everyday life.

    Reply
  9. Patricia Dusenbury

    The Museum of Quebec’s history exhibition made a lasting impression on me, but it was the more recent history, World War !I and the decade afterwards. It was hard to believe that this province, so close to us, experienced the isolation of the Maurice Duplessis years and the power that the Roman Catholic Church, which ran must schools and hospitals, over everyday life.

    Reply

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