Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ville de Montréal

There's no problem getting my required rest, as I have the next day off. I've spent enough time in Montréal in the past that I'm not interested today in seeing the museums and cathedrals, nor overeating on smoked meat and poutine. It's nice to be back in a big Canadian city, with every amenity I could possibly want, and a few old friends live here too.

One of my co-workers complains about the signs being in French, making it hard to get around. Funny, it's one of the things I like about the place. I don't think it's much harder to get around than any other city. Right turns on red are forbidden by default in the city. It has your typical maze of crooked downtown one-way streets, turn restrictions and bridges forking into highway ramps, but I don't recall any signs that didn't conform to international standards. You don't have to read more than a highway number and an arrow to take the proper exit from an overpass. I guess there are people who don't know their ouest from their est, but that's about the only source of confusion I see. My colleague, and others I've spoken with, feel that the French are being deliberately difficult, but I would say that Québec is more accommodating to English speakers than the rest of Canada is to French speakers.

It's true that language laws restrict the display of English signage, resulting in what to me is an amusing forest of signs advertising goods and services with familiar logos but twisted names and slogans. Canadian corporations go to some trouble concocting names that work equally well in both official languages, like the former Canadi>n Airlines, using a chevron to cover the difference between the French and English spelling.

I'm proud of my country's history, and that includes both solitudes. Quebec is a nation within a nation. It is different, and in a more significant way than Newfoundland is different from Alberta. I don't believe that the culture and language of a people should be subjugated just because their ancestors lost a battle two hundred odd years ago. I'm pretty sure it was exigency not planning that left society and legal system of Lower Canada unchanged after the English victory, but I like the resulting plurality of my country. I see what happens in countries where nationalists of once-independent states are suppressed. Heck, it happened here in Canada the 70s, before the laws. Now the quebecois are more confident in the security of their culture, so there is no need to kidnap cabinet ministers. Sure, some tourists are confused. Other tourists enjoy an exotic experience without leaving their own continent. And you have to get pretty far from the cities before a plaintive, "Does anyone speak English, please?" wouldn't be met with help. Get far enough north and people don't speak much English, but keep going north and they don't speak much French either. How's your Cree? Damn, I love my country and all its crazy languages and cultures.

Montréal has excellent public transit. I take a bus to the metro and buy a six-pack of metro tickets in anticipation of a few more snow days.`(A "snow day" is what you call it when school is cancelled because there is too much snow for the snowploughs to get through).


nec Timide said...

Sorry I couldn't meet you in Montréal.

I haven't gotten very far North in Québec, but I've really enjoyed my time spent in the east and off the main highways.

Sarah said...

Ah, Montréal. It's as close as I've gotten to France, I'm afraid. I really enjoyed the flavor of the city and, of course, the language. If Europe can cope with so many languages and cultures so closely packed, we North Americans should be able to. Perhaps someday, as in the new euro union overseas, a passport will not be necessary to cross borders. Oh wait, never mind... our trend is the other direction.

Minor aviation related question for north easterners... is there a difference on the radio? Do some pilots/controllers use French, or is the usual lingua franca mostly english?

Aviatrix said...

I have a post on ATC language coming up, but it's about three back in the queue.

nec Timide said...

@Sarah, If you are looking for the flavor of a visit to France, I'm told (never been to the Continent myself) that Old Québec city is very close. And COPA lists the airport as GA friendly (fuel available, no landing fees).

david said...

Britain had no desire or ability to impose its culture and laws on an unwilling people -- its power came from its huge and successful navy, not from its tiny and indifferent army, and it simply didn't have the manpower to try to force the habitants to become English and Protestant, even if it had cared enough to try.

The Quebec habitants returned the favour a few years later, when they fought side by side with the British against the American rebels to keep Quebec from being "liberated" from the British empire.

The English-French tensions in Canada didn't start in earnest until English-speaking refugees from the 13 colonies started arriving in Upper and Lower Canada after the American Revolution.

Paul said...

I was lucky enough to do some skiing at Mount-Sainte-Anne in my younger days.

We stayed many places but my favorite was staying at the Château Frontenac during Carnival. We loved the ice sculptures. Of course, the memories are a bit cloudy and if you've ever been to Carnival you would know why.

Yea, you should be proud of your country.


Aviatrix said...

Sarah: I second the vote for Québec city as an almost European destination. An old walled city, very French, fabulous fancy french food made all the better for the habitant influence. Lots of history. Very walkable, and I find people to be friendly to tourists, even during Carnival.

David: Are you suggesting we can blame the Americans for the conflict between our two solitudes? :) It's no surprise, really. As long as the numbers of immigrants are small, everyone gets along. I can think of many places where multiethnic communities were harmonious until the tipping point was reached and racism cut in.

Dafydd said...

I had always thought that any resentment towards French Canadians was not because they speak french per se but that there is a strong and continuing desire amongst many of their number for independance - well not actually independence because they could not exercise a separate economy - more like a dependant autonomy vis a vis the Catalans in Spain , or the Basques in France , or for that matter the Welsh in Great Britain ?

Richard said...

Aaaaagh! Learn a little French! Last time I was in Canada (Cornwall, Ont, at the expense of La Defense Canada) I found that a little french took me a long way. And why not? Discussing politcs, love, life, food or wine is most fun in French - talk about the gear-change or relativity in German if you want.

Anglo-imperialism is one of the curses of modern life.

Aviatrix said...

resentment towards French Canadians was not because they speak french per se but that there is a strong and continuing desire amongst many of their number for independence.

I don't think that's accurate. Those I've heard state a specific objection resent the money spent on official bilingualism, or the perceived advantage that people raised bilingual in a francophone family have in getting government jobs. I have heard "speak English, you're in Canada" levelled at a group of pilots chatting on the ramp, but that was returned with a laughing "speak French, you're in Canada." Some people just don't like the fact that other people are communicating in a language they don't know. It probably makes them feel intellectually inferior, so they retaliate by denigrating the language.

Have you heard the joke about aliens doing brain surgery experiments on a Newfie fisherman?

Anonymous said...

One of my part-time jobs was working at the Corel Centre (now Scotiabank Place) in one of the food serving and extortion (have you seen the price of beer?) stands.

One hockey game a woman came up to me and ordered in French. I don't understand much, if any French, and I speak much less. However, I understood enough words, and repeated the order back to her in English. She didn't understand much, if any English, but there was agreement between what she ordered and what she thought I said. She watched me bring everything, we had agreement, she kept speaking French while I did my best to understand, and I kept speaking English which she did her best to understand.

At the end, she had what she wanted, I properly met her needs and recorded the sale, and we smiled at each other and moved along.

If you want to cooperate, you can.

Sarah said...

Have you heard the joke about aliens doing brain surgery experiments on a Newfie fisherman?

No, is it like
this one?

And, like the pictured, I was thinking of Québec when I said Montréal. I haven't spent any time in the latter.

nec Timide said...

Like any complex issue, there are enough facets to Québec sovereignty to keep even the most selective bigot busy for a life time. And there is more than one story in la belle province as well. After half a century of alternating through exasperation, anger, joy, and pride; I've come to realize that for the most part I don't fully understand the other side of the issue. What I have realized, is that what most Québécios want is not all that different than what I want, even if the cultural translation is imperfect. And as Aviatrix and Sarah have said, it is fabulous having such diverse cultures so close to home.

Steve said...

Interesting blog entry. I love the fact that Quebec maintains their french heritage. I was talking to a friend of mine a couple of days ago bemoaning the fact that all cities are starting to look like each other and there is no reason to travel anymore. Its the same restaurants, same language, same food, same nondescript buildings, same everything. Even traveling overseas to Europe or Asia, its still the same McDonald's, same TGIFridays, same Starbucks (ok, maybe Starbucks everywhere is a good thing), same H&M stores, etc.

Anyway, I like the fact that Quebec hasn't succumbed to the cookie-cutter approach to its culture and language. Maybe I will have to take a trip there to experience some differentness.

viennatech said...

As a resident of QC during weekdays I must disagree with one of your comments regarding that Quebec tries just as hard as Canada to offer items in both languages. I find the opposite to be true. Ever notice that all the STOP signs claim "ARRET" in QC? If you go to France (or anywhere else on the planet) they say "STOP". That was pushing thigs to far. Ever notice on any government form in Canada (except QC) it will read "Name/Nom:" in QC it will be "Nom:". I receive a tax bill each year for my homes. One in Ontario comes completely in both languages, easy to understand. The one from Montreal? It does have 7 english words on it. They are in the worlds smallest readable type, at the bottom of the page and they say "an english copy is available upon request". What they don't say is that this request must be made, in person, at city hall.
I still work here as that is where the money is but I will never understand how the entire country MUST be bilingual FOR Quebec except Quebec who gets to be unilingual French.