In Montreal, a Berlin Wall of the Mind?
MONTREAL — On one side of a grand square near the old Port of Montreal is a sculpture of a Frenchwoman in a Chanel suit, clasping a poodle and sneering at the Bank of Montreal, a former symbol of British colonial rule built in 1847.
On the opposite end, a dapper Englishman, cast in bronze, holds a pug and stares condescendingly at Notre-Dame Basilica, an emblem of French Quebec’s influence under the Roman Catholic Church.
The poodle and the pug stare longingly at each other.
The sculptures are a powerful metaphor for this city, which has long been polarized by what the celebrated Canadian novelist Hugh MacLennan called the “Two Solitudes” — the perception, fairly or not, that French- and English-speaking Quebecers coexist uneasily.
I recently returned home to Montreal after 28 years abroad, curious to discover whether the two solitudes still existed.
After all, Montreal today, reflecting a bilingual multicultural Canada, is a swaggering metropolis of about 1.8 million people in the province of Quebec, shaped by the forces of globalization and immigration.
Yet Quebec’s longstanding cultural battles over language still simmer. And the city — with its Anglophone minority and Francophone majority surrounded by an Anglophone majority in the rest of the country — itself remains somewhat bifurcated.
Still, if lingering divisions remain, they appear to be predominantly along generational lines.
When I came of age in the 1980s around Westmount, a traditionally Anglophone enclave on the southwestern slope of Mount Royal that gave the world Leonard Cohen, Quebec had just been consumed by a referendum on independence, and thousands of English-speaking Quebecers were leaving the province.
The stop signs in my neighborhood were routinely vandalized to say “Arrête 101,” or Stop 101, a reference to Bill 101, a 1977 law that made French the official language of government and courts in Quebec, and requires that French lettering be twice as big as English on public signs and that immigrants send their children to French-only schools.
While I studied Flaubert, learned Quebec’s history at school and bantered in French during hockey practice, I spoke English at home, watched American sitcoms and lived in a separate but parallel universe from my French Canadian peers.
Fast-forward three decades, and separatism is largely in retreat. One in four Anglophones in Quebec marry French Quebecers.
I live on Plateau-Mont-Royal, a predominantly Francophone neighborhood in the east of Montreal. Twentysomething Francophone shopkeepers answer me in fluent English when I address them in French, and residents of all linguistic persuasions seem more obsessed by their search for the perfect latte than whether you order it in the language of Shakespeare or Molière.
Recent census figures show that 45 percent of people in Quebec speak both French and English.
Xavier Dolan, 28, one of Quebec’s — and Canada’s — most celebrated film directors, recalled that when his parents lived in the predominantly Anglophone neighborhood of NDG in the 1980s, his mother couldn’t wait to leave because she was taunted by Anglophones telling her to “speak white,” a slur used to denigrate those speaking other languages in public.
Today’s younger generation, he said, had discarded the hang-ups of their parents.
“There is a shift in the younger generation,” he said. “In my case, English meant Hollywood, it was film, it was ‘Titanic,’ so I wanted to speak English as quickly as I could.”
Brian Myles, the editor of Le Devoir, the influential left-leaning Quebecois daily, argued that the “two solitudes” were a thing of the past.
“Today the French speak English and the English speak French, and that didn’t exist when you had the two solitudes,” he said.
But he also cautioned that language laws were still necessary to protect French language and culture in Quebec because globalization and the internet are eroding the language.
Snaking through the heart of Montreal is St. Laurent Boulevard, a long and storied street peppered with Jewish delis, Portuguese chicken rotisserie joints and former brothels reincarnated as luxury condominiums. Historically, Francophones lived to the east of St. Laurent while Anglophones lived to the west.
Today, gaggles of French, English, Chinese and Indian students sit hunched over computers at cafes, chatting on Facebook or writing on Twitter.
But — a Berlin Wall of the mind lingers.
While the younger generation of Anglophone residents will confidently pronounce “St.-Laurent,” some of their parents stubbornly cling to “St. Lawrence.”
While Anglos read The Montreal Gazette or turn to the CBC for their news, Francophones read La Presse or Le Devoir or watch TVA. Utter the name Xavier Dolan or Marie Mai, a wildly popular Quebec singer, to an Anglophone Montrealer, and you risk being greeted by a blank stare.
“It is taboo to talk about the two solitudes, because we are supposed to pretend that we all get along when we are, in many ways, still separate,” said Heather O’Neill, a Montreal-based Anglophone novelist, who has daringly explored the city’s decadent underworld from the perspective of French Quebecois characters.
When her daughter was 9 years old, Ms. O’Neill sent her to a French elementary school, where, she recalled, she was chided by a teacher for speaking English with a Russian girl in the schoolyard.
Then there are the political fissures.
Voters in all the districts west of St. Laurent Boulevard have supported the federalist Liberal party of Quebec over the past decade, according to voting data from Quebec’s Director General of Elections.
Half of the districts to the east, where a majority of Francophone Montrealers live, have been won by separatist parties like the Parti Québécois or, more recently, the leftist Québec Solidaire.
In December, provincial legislators unanimously passed a resolution calling for shopkeepers to stop saying “Bonjour-hi” when they greet customers and to say simply “Bonjour” instead.
Meanwhile, Valérie Plante, the outward-looking mayor of Montreal, was recently criticized for releasing highlights of the city’s budget in English.
“You’d think we were at the Parliament in Ottawa, rather than Montreal City Hall, a Quebec metropolis!” fumed Maxime Laporte, the president of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society, an organization devoted to preserving French culture.
Chloe Molson, a university student with a Francophone mother and an Anglophone father, said that when she sometimes used English to greet customers at the Westmount supermarket where she works part-time, they sometimes rebuked her.
“One woman said to me, ‘Don’t you understand French?!’” she said.
But her Anglo friends sometimes become panicked when addressed in French.
Still, walking down St. Laurent Boulevard shows the unity, not the division of the city.
Lenny Lighter, the owner of Moishes’s, a fabled steakhouse on the boulevard, which his father, Moishe, won in a poker game in 1938, recalled that when he was growing up in the 1950s, most of Moishes’s customers were English-speaking Jewish immigrants. Today, he proudly noted, the restaurant hosts dozens of young French Quebecois each week.
“You still have people on both sides who can’t talk to one another, but in everyday life the barriers have come down.
A few streets farther east on Avenue du Mont-Royal, Marie Bouchard, a 23-year-old political science student at Université de Montréal, was munching on a sandwich at a cafe.
She said her favorite television show was the British science fiction series “Black Mirror,” while she loved French Quebecois pop music and adored her large group of Anglo friends.
“I love French, it’s my language,” she said, quickly adding, “But if I only spoke French, it would limit my horizons.”