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Last revised:
20 September 2000

How Others Have Viewed French Canadians and Quebec

Quebec Now - Chapter 2 : How They Talk
By Miriam Chapin

THE French Canadian child early becomes conscious of his speech. It can never be for him simply a means of communication, taken for granted. Rather it is a knot where twist together a complex of emotional reactions, embarrassment, pride, indignation, defensiveness. If he lives among English neighbours, he will be called "peasouper," either jokingly or hatefully. He will play naturally with those of his own language, and if in a city join with others to fight English gangs. In school he will be told daily to cherish his own tongue; there and in church he will find his speech linked with his religion. He will listen to warnings lest by losing his language he lose his faith also. As he grows older, he will have to learn English in order to earn a decent living, whether he resents the need or not. Some of his leaders will discourage his doing this. His language is a factor in the conflicts into which he is born.

The French language makes the French Canadian, within or without Quebec. The pure French Canadian race, preached by ardent nationalists, is a myth. When the ACJC (Association Catholique de la jeunesse Canadienne) first convened in 1904, the opening resolution proclaimed, "The French Canadian race has a special mission to fulfil on this continent, and it must for that reason keep its character distinct from other races." Other resolutions affirmed the special aptitude of the race for this mission, and held for certain that the integral practice of Catholicism, lived by the individual and society, is the remedy for all the ills of society. That theory of a chosen people persists. Racialism is an accepted belief. But men with Scottish and Irish names, Italian and even Basque, descendants of the king's soldiers or later comers, are utterly Canadien.

Nor is religion a strict dividing line, though to the rest of Canada French means Catholic. The Irish Catholic usually is part of the English community and accepted thereby. In Ontario his children go to the public school; in Quebec he sometimes pays double for their schooling because his taxes go to the Catholic school commission while he pays tuition to a Protestant school because no other English-speaking one is convenient. The Irish complain regularly to the Catholic commissions that there are too few English Catholic schools. The small Huguenot group is as loyal to French Canada as any of their neighbours, but for them life is difficult, since the schools make religion the dividing line, while the community makes language. They are cut off from their language group; none the less, their speech fixes their allegiance.

Nowhere is the mother tongue more consciously cherished than in Quebec, nor mare threatened by alien forces. A constant propaganda for the use of French goes on; a stream of articles and radio talks pours forth to urge keeping the language pure and using it on every possible occasion. The Société du bon parler français works to extend and correct its use. The most good-natured French Canadian shows understandable irritation when he has to get off a streetcar in Montreal to avoid a scene with halfdrunk soldiers from Ontario who order him to "speak white." He may complain sardonically that, "In a restaurant in my own city, Montreal, a French city, I am asked by a waitress to give my order in English." The most touching scene in Gabrielle Roy's Tin Flute is that where the weary mother drags herself up from St. Henri to see her dying child in the charity hospital on the mountain. She calls to him in French-and he answers in English. I have known French Canadian homes where the mother would burn every scrap of English printing that came in.

The situation in which to western Canada the French language means popery, clerical meddling, reactionary and corrupt politics, is a Canadian tragedy. The language of the Marseillaise, of Voltaire, of Anatole France, Proust and Zola often suggests to Toronto nothing but Roman Catholicism. If it were not for the stout fight the Church has put up to maintain it, French might have long since disappeared on this side of the Atlantic, but to make it synonymous with clericalism is a heavy price to pay. It is that connotation which has compelled too many French children in western provinces to suffer from teaching in English when they were too young to profit by it.

But when an embassy rouses indignation because, though its officials speak French, it gives a press conference in English, when an airline is criticized for sending advertising to French papers in English, it must be remembered that attaches and managers know well that French reporters understand English, and English ones don't understand French. Any organization which can't afford to print in two languages must choose English, deplorable though it may be.

English Canadians, with the rare exception, simply do not speak French. Only 3 per cent are bilingual. They can get along comfortably without it. So they do. French is so badly taught in the Protestant schools of Quebec that a boy graduating from high-school may pass an exam on the rules governing the agreement of the past participle, but be quite unable to pass the time of day with the garbageman.

Until recently English was not begun in the Catholic schools before the 6th grade. Many children drop out before that. English used to be the accomplishment of the well-to-do, the professional classes, who speak it excellently. It was neither necessary nor desirable for humbler folk, who might be contaminated by liberal ideas, or become too friendly with les Anglais, or get notions of rising above their station. The sheer force of industrial upheaval has changed all that. Only the remote country-dweller or the unskilled labourer can now do without English, and he is hampered. Clerks in stores, tram conductors, office help, any man who has to read directions for setting up a machine, must be bilingual. Indeed, the use of English in the towns sharpens the line between city and country man, leads to mistrust of these too fluent city folks.

Since the English do not commonly speak French, their language is little altered by association. One hears the occasional French phrase in English speech, but it is a decoration, not an essential part. In contrast, Canadian French has altered greatly, especially in the last fifty years. Its foundation is Norman, its background maritime. Quebec still embarks on, debarks from, car or train. Within the province accent varies; the capital is said to have the purest and prettiest langue, Gaspé the coarsest. Among country folk, it is distorted as in rural France. Bien becomes ben, puis as pis begins every sentence, rien que sounds like yinque, moi and toi are moé and toé. Old forms like icitte are common. Indian words like moccasin and canot were absorbed long ago. Expressions for frontier and farm were developed, new names found for New. World things and occasions.

But the constant deprecation of Canadian French one hears is part of the rulers' guilt complex. "These people don't talk real French," a statement one hears over and over, is simply nonsense. It is not true that a Parisian will not be readily understood in Quebec. He will be, but he will be identified at once as French, just as an Englishman will be spotted as soon as he opens his mouth in a Kansas town. French Canadian susceptibilities are kept ruffled by such remarks as that of a gentleman addressing a good roads conference in Quebec City, who calmly announced that he would speak in English because he had learned his French in Paris and knew his hearers would not understand him. Minister of Roads Talbot responded drily that at Laval's centenary the week before "we listened to the leading savants from the Sorbonne, and did not require interpreters." It is true that country people use a dialect. So does the Vermont farmer and the Texan rancher in English. But Canadian French spoken by educated people is good French. Where however it does diverge from standard is by the vast number of English words spliced into sentences, usually without the speaker's apparently being conscious that he is not talking straight French. His hearer, listening to the French lilt, has to thinly twice to sort out the English words-as probably William the Conqueror did. Il voulait me snobber, je feel pas comme ça, ces gars-la n'étaient has smart, j'ai jompé ma job, mon char s'est stucké - those are all remarks that sound French when spoken, but in which the key words are English, equipped with French endings and pronounced with French vowels.

English idioms are translated literally: marchandises sèches for dry goods, pouvoir d'eau instead of force hydraulique, sauver du trouble instead of épargner des ennuis.

Words that concern money and machinery are usually English. A garage man will understand you better if you say Fixez mes tires than if you talk about pneus. Engin, washer, brakes, valve, are ordinary terms. Cash is oftener used than argent comptant, ticket than billet. A woman asks her butcher, Combien le ham tenderizé? The passive form crowds out the indefinite on; les chiens ont été vu, not on a vu les chiens.

If Canada were a lonely island, in some ideal and rarefied clime where prejudices vanish and all men are brothers, it would be easy to make it a bi-national state, according to French its priority in Quebec and the equality in the federal courts and the Ottawa administration guaranteed by the British North America Act, trusting to its users and the enthusiasm of English Canadians for learning it, to preserve it everywhere else. But the weight of American power, so near, so overwhelming, makes English indispensable as in so many other lands. Victor Barbeau in his Le Ramage de mon pays spells out the crux of the matter: "The thousands of barbarisms which are the only means of expression of the mass witness our economic inferiority. Our language reflects our social condition. All enterprises belong to the English-speaking." Not absolutely true, but close.

There are contrary currents. In sports, when French Canadians have taken them for their own and been successful in them, they have made the vocabulary French. Baseball is now part of Quebec life. (Lacrosse has practically vanished.) So the loudspeakers proclaim, "Schultz lance maintenant pour Newark." A base hit is a coup sur, right field is champ de droit. In hockey, where les Canadiens are the most picturesque and often the winning team, all but the name is French. A puck is a rondelle, the goalkeeper gardien des buts, the forwards les avants. French is still an intensely living tongue, ready to adapt itself to new uses.

It survives in North America, a demonstration of the clutch it has on hearts. Marius Barbeau, the great French Canadian ethnologist, sadly predicts its disappearance. That day would be a very unhappy one for Canada. It may never come, it need never come. Meanwhile French determination to preserve the language and English lack of comprehension of that loving determination make a cleavage too deep for easy healing. Many English Canadians are aware of the need to close it. They make progress. But there were still in Montreal in 1954, restaurants of a big chain, and department stores, where it was forbidden to the employees to use French among themselves. Naturally they may use it to customers!

The battle is fought on two fronts, the struggle to keep French pure and in a position of equality and respect, in government, army, business and social life, and the struggle of the mass of the people to acquire the English they must have to raise themselves economically. In that ideal Canada of which we dream, they will get their education for the modern world, tempered with their French clarity and sensitivity. But also French will be valued and fostered, and the links with the best in France will be strengthened.

Source: Miriam CHAPIN, Quebec Now, Toronto, The Ryerson Press, 1955, pp. 12-19.

© 2000 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College