Somewhere, stuffed in a box, I have all of those term papers from my university days at McGill. Several of those papers contain marginal notes and comments from one of my favorite professors - Hugh MacLennan. MacLennan was one of the greatest of the English Canadian novelists, an artist and wizard with language who taught one of the Honours English courses in literature that I was fortunate to enjoy.
Hugh MacLennan doesn’t get a lot of play in the States these days. If any of my readers have ever heard his name or read even one of his novels, I’d be greatly surprised.
Still, McLennan was a first rate teacher and a stickler for correct English usage. It was axiomatic that anyone signing up for any of the very few courses taught by MacLennan needed to be careful about whatever written word got turned in for evaluation.
MacLennan spared no one. According to MacLennan, language had to be both subtle and precise and was intended to convey almost imperceptible shades of meaning. Failure to understand that meant… well, failure.
One of MacLennan’s novels, titled “Two Solitudes”, was based on a line from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke – “…the love that consists of two solitudes that protect, border and greet each other.” For MacLennan, the concept of “two solitudes” described the unique relationship between English and French Canada. These two cultures were two “solitudes”, entities that protected, greeted and defined each other, but could never join together in spite of their highly symbiotic relationship.
Language – that special vehicle of culture and tradition – kept the two solitudes apart.
I lived in Montreal during the days of the Front de Libération du Québec – the FLQ – the nice folks who thought it was a good idea to put bombs in those bright red Royal Mail post boxes, especially the ones in English-speaking neighborhoods. All in the hope of making Québec an independent nation. After all, they figured, a little bit of domestic terrorism might go a long way toward freeing La Belle Province from English domination.
French president Charles de Gaulle didn't help matters much when he visited Expo 67 (the 1967 World's Fair) and included the phrase "Vive le Québec libre !" ("Long live free Quebec!") in his speech from the balcony of Montreal's City Hall.
All of this was back in the day when the national flag was the old Canadian Red Ensign, not the Maple Leaf that we know today as the symbol of Canada. Canada was, after all, “British North America” in those days. Québec and its francophone culture was, in a way, an anomaly, just as McGill, an English-style university where some professors lectured wearing long academic gowns, was an anomaly as the bastion of Anglophone education in a sea of “Joual” – the French dialect of Moliére and working-class Montréal.
In those days, I often arrived in Montreal by train. One evening, I hailed a taxi and was driven to my apartment by a recently arrived eastern European driver – a new Canadian. He proudly told me, “I spik six langooge – Hinglish da best!”
The passage of time, however brings change. One of the changes that came to Québec was the passage of “Bill 101” by the Québec Parliament in 1977. Bill 101 was officially called “La charte de la langue française” (The Charter of the French Language) and its principal provision made French the official language of the province. Bill 101 provided fundamental language “rights” to the citizens of Québec and those rights included the “right” and requirement to conduct all business in French.
This also meant that all education through the end of secondary school was to be conducted in French as well. If Johnny – now Jean – wanted to learn English, it would be as a second language.
One of the principal effects of Bill 101 was to dramatically increase the population of provinces to the west of Québec, as English-speaking Quebeckers headed out, with their families and businesses.
For English-speaking Canadians with children, there was an escape clause. If either parent had received an elementary or secondary education in English in Canada, his or her child could be educated in English as well. (Originally, the bill said that the parent’s English education had to be in the province of Québec, but this was expanded to “Canada” in 1982)
English-speaking immigrants, however, had no choice. If they chose to live and work and procreate in Québec, their children were to be educated in French.
Business names and signs were to be in French. Workers had the right to be spoken to in French, even if they were the only French-speaking employee in a business. Despite the fact that Canada itself was a bilingual nation, Québec had decided that it was to be a unilingual province. Rejecting the “cultural mosaic” image that Canada used to distinguish itself from its “melting pot” cousin to the south, Québec chose another route altogether. Nous parlons la langue française, et vous, aussi.
Why? Simply because language is inseparable from culture. In fact, language conveys culture from generation to generation.
To make sure all this “cultural transmission” came to pass and in its continuing effort to undo the effect of Wolfe’s defeat of Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham outside the walls of Québec City, the province created “Office québécois de la langue française”, generally known to English-speaking Quebeckers as “the language police.”
These were the folks who insured that the signage on businesses was correct, that company names had a “francophone-positive” look and that tourists who did not speak French (even if they came from Manitoba) had the proper degree of bewilderment.
And so it was with great amusement that I read the Yahoo Canada news article today titled “Quebec language agency to go after companies with English names.”
All to insure the companies like the coffee chain “Second Cup, Ltd.” get with the program[me] and change their name (in Québec) to Les cafés Second Cup, so as not to offend the language police.
Actually, this is not a “tempest in a coffee cup” issue. Three Second Cup locations in Montreal were firebombed in 2001 by an FLQ activist offended by their “anglo” company name. The new increased enforcement activity will be specifically aimed at multinational “big-box” stores that the agency feels threaten the language purity of the province.
In their defense, the Québec language agency points to the explosion of “English Only” laws being passed throughout the United States. (Surprisingly, even here in Upstate, a local town government recently passed a law stating that theirs was an “English only” town. I guess that means that a lot of the councilfolk will have to go back to school to learn how to speak and write it correctly…)
Still, we need to consider the “two solitudes” concept more carefully. Cultures – and languages – can exist side by side, accommodating each other, protecting each other and even loving each other. The idea that we all need to blend together into an amorphous linguistic singularity – a Borg nation – is highly unattractive.
Or, as we say in the best Joual of La Belle Province when confronted with an abhorrent idea – “Moezie Tabernac’ et Sayn Sacramen du Hostie!”