08/09/2012 11:42 EDT | Actualisé 08/11/2012 05:12 EST

Anglos/francos à Montréal: la vraie réalité. Au quotidien.


Toute cette escalade dans les blâmes et les accusations entre anglophones et francophones est en train de complètement occulter les vrais aspects de Montréal dont, déjà, on ne parle pas assez. Les opinions les plus extrêmes, les groupes de pression et les gens qui ont un agenda à faire avancer prennent tout l'espace, et on oublie ce que signifie vraiment la vie dans cette ville où se côtoient depuis longtemps deux grandes langues et deux grandes cultures, et où les gens sont, à la base, foncièrement ouverts et tolérants.

Pour cela, je fais appel aujourd'hui à la plume de quelqu'un qui, depuis longtemps, attire l'attention sur cette réalité: Josh Freed, journaliste, documentariste, et chroniqueur à The Gazette depuis des décennies. Le texte qui suit était paru en 1991 (!). À l'époque, je l'avais clippé dans le journal, et je l'avais affiché sur un babillard chez moi, pour le relire chaque fois que d'autres commentaires me décourageraient trop.

À ma demande, Josh Freed a été assez gentil pour m'envoyer le texte. Où ce qu'il raconte pourrait s'appliquer intégralement aujourd'hui.

Pas de problème with two languages in my neighborhood

The Gazette (Montreal) Sat Mar 30 1991


The St. Denis St. waiter was a mustachioed young francophone. He hovered by my table impatiently, waiting for my order.

«Le spécial du jour, s'il vous plaît», I said.

«Bon», he replied. «Will you take the soup or the salad?»

«Uh ... Je prendrai la salade», I said.

«Parfait», he replied. «Do you prefer vinaigrette maison, Italian or French?»

«Francais», I said.

And so it continued for most of the meal: an anglophone speaking French and a francophone speaking English, as if nothing could be more natural.

It was just part of the daily « dance of the Quebec solitudes » - a linguistic two-step where you never know what language your partner will speak.

Perhaps my young waiter was determined to practice his English. Perhaps he was showing some sympathy for Quebec's anglo minority, whose survival may now be more threatened than his.

Or maybe he was actually a unilingual anglophone, posing as a French waiter speaking English. Who knows? In Montreal these days, tout est possible.

To read the news, relations between French and English have never been worse: a North American Northern Ireland where independence could be declared while you take an afternoon nap.

Separatists harp about the « historic inevitability of our own country » as if Quebec was Russia under the tsar. Sovereignty- saturated anglos whine about selling their homes and fleeing the country - just to avoid listening to another referendum debate.

In the Rest Of Canada, gloom reigns, like relatives considering a friend with a terminal disease. « It's hopeless, » a forlorn writer told me in Toronto last week. « The English and French just can't get along. »

But here in my neighborhood, as I stroll around the streets, the two solitudes have never gotten along better. From the Main to St. Denis St., from the mountain to the river, sidewalks are filled with a dozen nationalities buying, selling and rubbing shoulders in a jumble of tongues.

Spring fever is bursting out in all its pothole-pocked glory, and Montrealers seem as friendly as townsfolk in a small village.

Every depanneur is a linguistic detective who can sense what language you speak at a glance. The young French salesman at my corner newsstand always addresses me warmly in English, even though I always buy La Presse. How does he know?

The cabbies in the neighborhood shift languages as quickly as lanes, depending on whether you ask for Boul. St. Laurent or St. Lawrence Blvd.

As an anglo, I often need to know only one French word: « Bonjour » a password that shows I come in good faith; after that anything is possible.

Like the guy at the parking lot who replies to my French salutation by saying: « Salut boss... . Gimme the keys. »

Or the French bartender who sticks to English so steadfastly I am tempted to invoke Bill 101 and my right to be served in French.

In this language-loaded city, most people find a friendly way to blunder by.

I know of two neighbors, one French, the other English, who've chatted daily over their clotheslines for years. Both speak a bit of the other's language, but each is more comfortable in his own, so here's how the conversation goes:

« Bonjour Benoit... . How are things? »

« Pas mal, Simon. Comment vont les enfants? » « Très bien, très bien... . I'm doing some work on my veranda ... Could I ask you some advice?

« Mais oui. Qu'est-ce-que tu construis? »

And so a veranda is built, with plans conceived bilingually.

Amidst this linguistic stew, it's easy to lose your tongue. Last week I chatted happily away in French for several moments with a telephone receptionist at CBC, before we gradually realized we were both English.

We kept speaking French just the same: why break the mood?

Like many of you, I'm weary of reading headlines about Quebec's demands and Allaire's report. And I get depressed when the occasional nationalist spokesman talks about too many immigrants threatening Quebec's culture.

But then I wander into my charcuterie and two French salesmen are struggling to serve an elderly Chinese woman, who speaks no French and very little English. « Oui madame ... it is bacon, » says one patiently. « Bacon fume. »

« Smoked bacon, » breaks in the other salesman, with a warm smile. « It is very good ... with eggs! »

In truth, language disputes began to die out on the streets of Montreal years ago, when French became the working language and anglos stopped being much of a threat.

The only squabbling we do these days is on government committees, where members are paid to fight. Now I know I can't judge the world by my street - but I suspect my neighborhood is not that different from the rest of the city or the country.

There may still be people in Quebec who refuse to speak any English, just as there may once have been a « unilingual English saleslady » in the tartan section of Eaton's, who wouldn't speak a word of French.

But in a world where Croats spit at Slovenians, Soviets shoot Lithuanians, Tamils hate Indians and Indians hate Sikhs - the people of our city seem almost best friends, despite the political rhetoric.

Here in Montreal, on a wet spring day, English-French relations have never looked better. Even if no one wants to look.


Voilà ! Si je me sens assez d'aplomb, je tenterai un peu plus tard ma propre version, à la sauce 2012, et en français. Avez-vous des témoignages pour l'alimenter? N'hésitez pas.