I recently had the pleasure to accidently discover a short documentary that touches a very sensitive issue : the exodus of anglophones. And it deals with this issue with great sensibility. I expected a rant, it wasn’t.
The three part documentary is basicaly an interview with six english montrealers who left the linguisticly changing post quiet revolution Montréal. (One of them is former CHOM FM radio host Terry DiMonte.)
You can watch it on line :
In the first part, the six characters tell about their childhood in Montreal and about the time of the firt PQ election. I was first stricken by their story of a unilingual english community. « It was a 99.9% english neigborhood. » says one. Another tells about her school where everybody spoke english, where they had everything, she says, english, italians, greeks, but no french.
You have to understand that I don’t blame them for not speaking french. They did not choose to speak english, nor did I choose to speak french, they were raised that way by their parents who were themselves raised that way by their parents. They spoke the language of their community, that’s all. I also think that learning a second language is an enormous task, you just can’t say « learn french », it is not that simple. This being said, this narration of their childhood is a saddening illustration of the two solitudes.
And then, a thunderstrike, november 15th, 1976 the PQ was elected, their world suddenly changed. « It was a shock » says one of them. Interestingly, the PQ was first elected in 1976 and the quiet revolution began in early 60s. By 1976, Québec had already immensly changed, one had to be blind not to see the coming changes, nevertheless, they were shocked, to their eyes their world had suddenly changed, and many of them decided to leave this changing world where they felt they no longer fitted.
The documentary is also about what I would call the pain of exile. One tells about the pain of leaving behind friends and family, another tells about the first difficult times in this foreign canadian west where they were not always welcomed. One newspaper front page once said « Bums, unskilled not welcomed : Calgary mayor ». « There were times when you got the the look », says one. So « we kept quiet about we were from » says another.
If you are leaving not because you want to but because you feel forced to, exile is then, I believe, much more painful. I sometimes get fed up with anglos telling about all those who left because of big bad separatists, bla, bla, bla. But when you can relate to the pain of exile (and I can), you can understand their lasting resentment.
The first part ends with Steve Warnes reading an old letter from his mother, she tells about his young brother who misses his two older brothers. Mr Warnes is now a man in his fifties, these events occured long ago, yet he has to stop reading because his voice is breaking, he removes his glasses and wipes the tears in his eyes. Hearthbreaking. Truely.
Their story is tragic. Tragic as in greek tragedy. I think it is tragic because you can blame french quebeckers all you want but french quebeckers, unpleased with their situation, had to do what they did and those six english expatriates look like innocent bystanders taken in the storm of history.
French quebeckers were unpleased with their situation. So, given their number, they were able to change the rules of the game, and in this changing world, some could not compete anymore. It was a kind of « it was us or them » situation, hence the tragedy.
Patti MacNeil’s words illustrate quite well the situation : « I could have stayed forever given I could have learn the language and I didn’t. So I ended up, unilingual english with a french name, in a town where I have always worked in english, (…) if anything ever happened to CHOM, I wouldn’t have been able to work anywhere else. I didn’t have enough to do retail anymore. »
My theory is that those who left spoke less french than the average english montrealer. But I have never read anything about it proving me right or wrong. But it is not the point.
Usually, when english quebeckers tell french quebeckers about the exodus of anglophones, it is all about blaming french quebeckers, separatism, linguistic laws, our supposed intolerance, and so on, vous connaissez la chanson. This documentary gives a different sound, it tells of a human experience.