Toujours la langue

Since my first visit in 2010, Quebec City has become a kind of second home for me. Motivated by a desire to learn more and--especially--practice speaking French, I have returned at least once, sometimes twice a year and stayed for as long as six months at a time. Maintenant, la chassure est sur l'autre pied, the shoe is on the other foot. A Quebec friend has come west to British Columbia to visit me. We met during my first visit to la ville de Québec, when I was searching for a conversation exchange partner, and for more than four years I have been her main anglophone contact. She can understand English much of the time, and read it with the aid of a dictionary, but without regular practice chez elle, she rarely speaks it.

A Québecoise photographs the Terry Fox Memorial at B.C. Place
What's more, she is a die-hard separatist. A lifetime supporter of the Parti Québecois, whose main goal is the separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada. An independent Quebec. This has been a long-standing Canadian issue, always at least on the back burner, and one that sometimes boils over as raucous referendum campaigns in which Quebeckers are exhorted by les oui and no sides. In 1970, the separatist movement turned violent when the FLQ (Front de libération du Québec) kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner and murdered a Quebec politician, Pierre LaPorte. The Prime Minister of that époque, Pierre Trudeau, imposed martial law and made lifetime enemies of many Quebeckers, including mon ami Québecoise.

So I was interested to see how my friend's first trip to western Canada would unfold, particularly what evidence she would find of the fact that Canada is officially un pays bilingue, a bilingual country, from coast to coast. Of course it isn't really. In the province of Quebec, almost 7 and a half million people either have French as their mother tongue or can conduct a conversation in French. Outside that province, the number drops to 2.5 million, and most of those speakers live east of Alberta. At our first lunch, however, my friend discovered that the waiter could communicate in French, at least enough to carry on a short exchange about how he learned the language as a semi-pro volleyball player training at a facility in Gatineau, Quebec. She heard her mother tongue spoken at the Museum of Anthropology, the hotel where she stayed, and the Vancouver aquarium. Most of these speakers were young, and at least one had attended a French immersion school. Much as my visitor and other Quebec residents detested the late prime minister Trudeau for having imposed martial law and for other actions too complex to describe here, his government supported the establishment of French immersion schools across the country. They are now so popular in most provinces that parents must line up for hours, even days, to enroll their children.

It's good to see that mon ami feels comfortable in British Columbia, one of only two or three forays she has made outside her province. On a hike through the woods, she freely sang out "bonjour" to those we passed, and the other hikers, while perhaps surprised, answered in kind--some awkwardly, some with confidence. Nothing like seeing how the other half lives to reconsider one's views. With more and more young people in Quebec learning English for practical reasons (and because of the influence of pop culture), and more students outside Quebec demanding French immersion, the idea of creating a sovereign Quebec for the sake of preserving the French language may have lingered past its "best before" date.