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Two solitudes protect and touch: On creating communities

Notes for a speech at the Unitarian Church in North Hatley


Graham Fraser – Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery

Bonjour, Good day.

It is a great pleasure to be invited to speak to the Unitarian Church – for several reasons. I have a strong personal connection both to North Hatley and to the Unitarian Church. Almost exactly 45 years ago, on July 1, 1967, my father gave a Centennial Sermon at the Unitarian Church in Montréal. In his ode to Canada, he talked about what he called “the cleansing experience of solitude” that Canadians had such easy access to: the wilderness of the Canadian Shield.

Less than a year later, he died on a canoe trip in the savage land he loved so much. Since then, I have followed in my father’s footsteps – not only by becoming a journalist, and not only by acquiring the house he once shared here in North Hatley, but also by following the politics and progress of French-speaking Canada. My father was a great believer in Quebec’s cultural vitality, in the importance of linguistic duality, and in the need for Canadian universities to give their students an opportunity to learn both official languages.

I was also pleased at the title Rachel Garber gave me: “Two solitudes protect and touch.” It is from the poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, from which Hugh MacLennan took the title of his famous novel. The full quotation is:

Love consists in this,
That two solitudes protect and
Touch and greet each other.

But it has become a catch phrase to represent distance and incomprehension between French and English. In fact, according to Wikipedia, “Two Solitudes refers to a perceived lack of communication and moreover a lack of will for communication between Anglophone and Francophone people in Canada.” MacLennan was always a bit disappointed that his title was taken as a symbol of the distance between French and English in Canada, for the Rilke poem referred to an intimate connection. While MacLennan – who spent many summers here – did not speak French himself, he was a strong proponent of second-language education.

MacLennan was part of a group of friends here at North Hatley that included my father, F.R. Scott and Mason Wade, the American historian of French Canada. In August 1943, Wade told his friends in North Hatley that Henri Bourassa was speaking in Magog on behalf of a Bloc populaire candidate in the Stanstead by-election. Bourassa was about to turn 75, and it would be one of the last opportunities to hear him speak. So, a group headed over to hear him.

“Bourassa was introduced by a man with blazing eyes, a lock of hair, a high voice filled with passion and hatred,” MacLennan told me almost 40 years later. “I said to Wade, ‘Who in the hell is that?’ ‘That’s André Laurendeau.’ ‘I just put him in a book and mailed him to New York a week ago.1’”

To MacLennan, it was the shock of recognition: his character Marius Tallard in the flesh. The two men did not meet then, but five years later, Laurendeau sent MacLennan a copy of a children’s book he had written, inscribed “D’une solitude à l’autre.” And 20 years after the speech in Magog, Laurendeau became co-chair of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, with MacLennan’s friend and neighbour Frank Scott as a member.

MacLennan did not only write about Quebec in his fiction. In a number of essays in the 1950s and 1960s, he wrote about the changes that were underway in Quebec society, and how the rest of the country should respond.

In 1960, when only three percent of English-speaking Canadians outside Quebec spoke French, MacLennan made an impassioned plea for bilingualism. “The matter is so important to our national existence that the most radical plans should be considered for improving the situation,” he wrote, noting the twofold benefit of learning French.

“On the one hand, the study of a language like French is rewarding in itself and gives a superlative training to a student in the precise handling of his own language,” he wrote. “On the other hand, an interest in bilingualism may well be the sole measure which can save Canada from absorption by the United States. This country of ours is a dual one or it is nothing. The essence of Canadian nationhood lies in this very fact, that it is a political fusion of the two elements in North American history which refused to belong to the United States.”2

In 1966, he called for the creation of minority French-language schools in English-speaking provinces, and the creation of a federal public service where French-speaking Canadians could use their language and be understood. “It is essential in the interests not only of justice according to the B.N.A. Act, but also of an efficient partnership,” he wrote. “A great deal of a man’s ability is left behind him if he has to do business and be judged in a language not native to him.”3

Continuing in the same vein, here in North Hatley we’ve been privileged over the years to welcome a group of English-speaking intellectuals interested in Canada’s French factor. Besides the Anglophones I’ve mentioned, French-speaking intellectuals like Gérald Godin, Pauline Julien and Marcel Rioux have also come to North Hatley. But it cannot be said that these two groups came together as a single community. There was a gap between them that good intentions could not bridge.

Quebec’s English-speaking community has changed dramatically in the seven decades since Laurendeau spoke in Magog in 1943. Now, 60% of English-speaking Quebecers are bilingual. Among those between the ages of 18 and 34, it’s 80%. The community has also shrunk. In 1970, there were some 250,000 students in English schools in Quebec; now there are about 100,000. Only 8% of Quebec’s population speaks English as a mother tongue; 13% of Quebecers speak a language other than English or French; and about 80% are French. The gap in earnings between Anglophones and Francophones that was identified in the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism has disappeared. In fact, in regions across Quebec outside Montréal, the dropout rate and the poverty and unemployment levels are higher among Anglophones than among Francophones.

Here in the Eastern Townships, English was once the majority language. It is now spoken in a scattering of communities across a territory the size of Belgium. However, we are now in a belt of English-speaking communities that stretches from Sherbrooke to Stanstead, in which English is spoken by about 25% of the population.

The problem is that the changes in the English community are generally not recognized by the French-speaking majority in Quebec. The old stereotypes persist.

In some ways, there has been a revival of linguistic insecurity in Quebec. This has been due, in part, to a confusion between the increasingly dominant role that English is playing on the international stage, and English as the language spoken by a shrinking English minority community. English community leaders in Quebec often say that the English language is not threatened in Quebec – but English communities are.

A perfect example of this occurred last week, when Canadian Heritage grants to minority communities were announced. Among the groups receiving funding were the English Language Arts Network, the Youth Employment Services Foundation, the Quebec Community Newspapers Association, the Quebec Community Groups Network, the Quebec Drama Federation, the Quebec Farmers’ Association and the African Canadian Development and Prevention Network. Most of these, as you can tell from their names, are Quebec-wide organizations dedicated to the support of English-language minority communities – but based in Montréal.

On July 10, a headline in the Journal de Montréal read, “[Translation] English Favoured by Ottawa.” Mario Beaulieu, President of Mouvement Québec français, was quoted as saying, “[Translation] I find that very offensive, especially since the group’s mission is to make public services as English as possible.”4

Through misunderstanding or deliberate distortion, grants to groups working for the good of their communities are portrayed as a threat to French. Why is that?

In Quebec, and particularly in Montréal, popular perception has it that French is waning. There are several reasons why people might think this. A segment of the Francophone population has moved to the suburbs. Some university faculties are touting the importance of English as the language of business. Key positions have gone to unilingual individuals in Ottawa and at Quebec financial institutions in Montréal. Some convenience store owners who are recent immigrants to Quebec are not always able to serve their customers in French. And, lastly, the Office québécois de la langue française recently declared that more and more store employees in Montréal are greeting their customers with “Bonjour, hi.”

I think there is another underlying factor that helps explain this new linguistic insecurity. Five years ago, in 2007, the Parti Québécois finished third in the Quebec election – the first time that has happened in 34 years. For three decades, the PQ had been a dominant force, and so a whole slice of the political class believed that Quebec was close to a successful referendum and independence. This created a series of high-level debates about what kind of independent country Quebec would be: an open, generous citizen of the world. The fact that the PQ finished third meant that flight to another country was cancelled, and those same people began to think, “If we are here, who are we? And what is here?’’

In other words, instead of thinking of themselves as a generous majority, they began thinking of themselves once again as a defensive minority. For only a defensive minority could see grants to the Quebec Farmers Association and the English Language Arts Network as threats to be deplored.

However, I am actually quite optimistic about the state of French-English relations in Canada.

In his recent book, Québécois 101, pollster and marketing consultant Pierre Coté wraps up his chapter on Quebecers’ attitudes towards Canada as follows:

To Quebecers, Canada is therefore neither hell nor heaven. They see Canadians as distant acquaintances, not as friends. They rub shoulders occasionally, but nothing too personal. And yet one out of four Quebecers plans to vacation in Canada in the coming year. [Translation] 5

Well, this is hardly the stuff of national crisis: mere acquaintances you might go visit on holidays.

In fact, I would argue that there are more indications now than in the past that Quebecers are interested in English Canada and in the English-speaking community in Quebec – with one big proviso: provided that there is something interesting to be interested in!

When I moved to Quebec in 1976, there was an active rejection of the idea that anything worthwhile or interesting could happen in English-speaking Canada. And English-speaking Quebec was a bundle of clichés summed up in the cartoons of La Presse’s Girerd: wealthy, tweedy, tea-sipping Westmount millionaires.

Now, when there is something interesting going on, it is noticed. Two La Presse reporters travelled to Alberta for the most recent provincial election. In covering the debate about introducing merit pay for teachers, Le Devoir wrote about how English school boards in Quebec had successfully done it. Last weekend, Le Devoir had a review of Louise Penny’s latest mystery, and a full-page tourism piece on bicycling in Toronto. This was not done out of duty or patriotism – but out of curiosity and interest. This is a good thing.

And it leads me to the question I was asked to address: how can a sense of community be created?

Rachel Garber said, “We are seeking ways to foster understanding, collaboration and compassion between French and English speakers within the context of our small group where many, but not all, members are bilingual to varying degrees.”

Let me share some examples of how other people in other communities have tried to do just that.

Sheila Eskenazi is a real estate agent in the Laurentians and president of the Laurentian Club of Canada. She noticed that there were no telephone messages in English at the local hospital, so she volunteered to record them. Now, if you call the hospital, the automatic phone answering service has an English option, and Sheila Eskenazi’s voice will guide you through the system.

A few years ago, I was in Gaspé for the celebrations of the 475th anniversary of the arrival of Jacques Cartier. Thanks to a suggestion by the regional director of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the English community had become involved in marking the role played in the history of Gaspé by William Wakeham, a doctor who had become a sea captain and claimed Baffin Island for Canada. The result was a series of audio guided tours of the community in English, developed and recorded by local high school students, much to the delight of the (unilingual French-speaking) organizers of the Jacques Cartier celebrations.

A few weeks ago, I was in Métis-sur-Mer, which has a very small English school and a very small French school. A few years ago, the two communities of Métis Beach and Les Boules – one predominantly English-speaking and the other largely French-speaking – were amalgamated. The Member of the National Assembly, Danielle Doyer, told me that the two communities were pretty suspicious of their new amalgamated partners until they attended a very successful joint event organized by the two schools. Then, she told me, people decided that if the children could get along so successfully, the adults should as well.

I was in Métis-sur-Mer for the opening of the Lower St. Lawrence Heritage Centre, whose library is now the only library in the Lower St. Lawrence. Although the Centre was developed by the English community, the goal of the library is to have one quarter of the books for English children, one quarter for French children, one quarter for English adults and one quarter for French adults.

Closer to home:

In a few weeks, August 2 will mark the launch of the one‑year countdown to the 2013 Canada Games in Sherbrooke. William Hogg is responsible for ensuring that the Games occur in both official languages, and I know that the organizers will be looking for bilingual volunteers.

Every summer, I am impressed by the work done by the Lake Massawippi Protection Association in alerting cottagers, farmers and villagers of the threats to the water quality of the lake, and distributing plants that will minimize erosion along the lakeshore.

Last summer, my wife fell and injured herself, and was taken to the CHUS in Sherbrooke. She received excellent care, and while she was there, she was visited by Ruth Elkas, a retired nurse who does rounds in the hospital to make sure that non‑French‑speaking patients are getting the service they need and are understanding the services they are getting.

Finally, last week, Bishop’s University and the Université de Sherbrooke announced that they are developing joint graduate programs so that more students will be able to stay in Sherbrooke to do graduate work.

What do all these initiatives have in common? To begin with, they are all practical. They are helpful. They are useful for the larger community. They did not set out with the goal of improving relations between the majority and minority communities. They set out to solve a problem, and better community relations resulted as a positive by-product.

And that, I think, is the key. Better community relations are achieved not necessarily by overtly seeking what Rachel Garber called “understanding, collaboration and compassion between French and English speakers,” but by working together for a common goal and for the public good.

The challenge, in a society dealing with unemployment and high school dropout rates, environmental problems, and immigrant and refugee settlement issues, is to choose which problem needs to be addressed first, and how it should be done.

My father finished his speech to the Unitarian Church in Montréal this way: “We all, I’m sure, have many hopes for Canada on this Centennial day – that she may grow, thrive, prosper in all things. To these I would add one hope more: That Canada will not so greatly grow, and not so grossly thrive, as to destroy this heritage of solitude which makes us what we are and which our children will know perhaps better than we how to value.”

Let me add yet another hope, 45 years later: that we learn to value more and better appreciate the linguistic duality that symbolizes and shapes our country, and that can be an inspiration to all of us.

Thank you very much.

Notes

1 Quoted in “The Last Saga of Hugh MacLennan,” The Globe and Mail, May 18, 1985, p. B1

2 “French is a must for Canadians,” in The Other Side of Hugh MacLennan: Selected Essays Old and New, edited by Elspeth Cameron, Toronto, Macmillan of Canada, 1978, p. 164.

3 “An English-Speaking Quebecker Looks at Quebec,” in op. cit., p. 234.

4 Journal de Montréal, July 10, 2012

5 Pierre Côté, Québécois 101: Notre portrait en 25 traits, Québec Amérique, 2012, p. 183.