Words apart: a writer in Quebec finds that language creates an unbridgeable divide.

Author:Rybczynski, Witold

In January 1989, I received a letter from Francois Hebert, the editor of Liberte, a French-Canadian cultural periodical. A proverbial little magazine, Liberte had a format that resembled a paperback book and a circulation of 3,000. Hebert was planning an issue around the theme of what it was like to be an English-speaking intellectual in Quebec. "It is in this spirit that we are inviting you and some 20 others (writers, academics, filmmakers, etc.) to let us know what you think about the current linguistic debate in Quebec," he wrote.

The "linguistic debate" that Hebert referred to was the latest episode in the ongoing political dispute over the status of French-speaking Quebec in English-speaking Canada. During the last decade, the Canadian government had mandated bilingualism across the country, but in 1977 the newly elected separatist government of Quebec, thumbing its nose at the federal policy, passed a law that made French the province's official language. This was not merely a symbolic gesture. The law altered the everyday practices of education and business. The children of immigrants who attended public schools, for example, were to be sent to French schools, and French was to be the language of the workplace. The Charter of the French Language, as it was named, was enforced by special government inspectors ("language police," English-speaking Montrealers called them). One of the charter's provisions mandated that all outside store signs be in French; signs in English (or any other language) were banned. Brown's Shoe Shop, which had been doing business in Montreal since 1940, became Chaussures Brown; Eaton's, the city's largest department store, renamed itself Eaton; Ben's, the legendary downtown delicatessen, simply painted over its apostrophe.

Thus was Quebec's visage linguistique protected. Trivial, you might say, but irritating to Montreal's English-speaking minority, which then numbered almost half a million. Several store owners challenged the sign law in court, and in time the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the French-only sign provision as violating freedom of expression. The ruling provincial government, now Liberal, and supposedly federalist, retaliated by immediately re-passing the sign law, taking advantage of a legal loophole in the Canadian Bill of Rights that gave governments the selective right to temporarily override individual freedoms. The new law had been enacted the month before I received the Liberte letter.

I felt I should accept Hebert's offer. I was free to approach the subject in any way I wanted, even write in English and he would have it translated. Much had already been written about the language debate, and like many Quebeckers, I was weary of the whole subject. But the language conflict was usually cast in the stereotypical mold of "us versus them," and I thought it would be useful to give the readers of Liberte a sense of my own situation as an English-speaking writer who was unaffected directly by the language law.

Here is what I wrote:

Looking South

I live south of Montreal, just above the 45th latitude where Canada stops and the United States begins. To take advantage of the warming sun and the comforting prospect of a sloping meadow, my house faces south. For different but no less practical reasons, so do I. To the south of me are 200 million readers--for a writer, a tempting lure. Also to the south is the premier metropolis of the continent. My first book was written at the instigation of a New York editor who had read a piece of mine in a small Californian journal and had invited me to expand it into a full-length book. Although very few of the 200 million read my critique of appropriate technology, the few thousand copies that were sold were enough to encourage my publisher to continue our relationship, and I continued to write. It did not occur to me at the time that there was anything unusual in writing for an international public (the book also appeared in England and France). I had been born in Edinburgh, raised in England, and educated in Montreal. I was living in Quebec, with a wife half French-Canadian, half Anglo-Irish, and although English was effectively my mother tongue, my mother and my father were Polish. Altogether, I was unsuited to be a Canadian nationalist. I was pleased to write for anyone who would read my books, which, in any case, dealt with subjects that ranged beyond national boundaries. Of course, I was lucky to be living beside the United States, and not beside, say, the Soviet Union. This was in part a question of sharing a common language, but also sharing a common way of life. As a boy in England, I had grown up with American Western movies; later I became familiar with American television, and American writers. Moreover, since the United States is open to outsiders--and to...

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