The poetics of language should be stronger than its politics

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

Anglophones choosing French universities signifies a deeper change in Montreal society

“Montreal is home.”

That’s a statement I’ve heard on more than one occasion from native-Montrealers and newcomers alike. I’ve heard it from born-and-bred Torontonians and proud Vancouverites. I’ve heard it said in English, French and even Spanish.

As someone who grew up in the far-away town of Saguenay, Que., I am very aware of how great the city’s energy and culture is.

But Montreal, as one of my Canadian literature professors put it, is the centre of very complex, divisive politics. Indeed, language politics bring out the worst in people and foster a hostility I have a hard time wrapping my head around.

Last month, the Montreal Gazette published a compelling article about a Montreal lawyer who found herself choosing to study at Université de Montréal (UdeM) despite being an anglophone. According to the article, when Serena Trifiro wasn’t accepted into McGill University, she opted for UdeM. Today, Trifiro says she’s infinitely grateful for this turn of events, as it helped her pass the Quebec bar and facilitated her career in Quebec, according to the article. Trifiro suggested that she believes the perks were well worth the struggle at UdeM.

The Montreal Gazette’s piece addressed the fact that more anglophones are choosing to attend French universities. Among other statistics, the article pointed out that the number of English-speaking students at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) rose from 193 in 2012 to 519 in 2016.

I am a born-and-bred Saguenéen who loves the English side of Montreal, and I came to study English literature at Concordia with the goal of eventually leaving the province. In my opinion, the increase of anglophone students in Montreal’s French universities is significant.

Forty years after passing the controversial Bill 101, this increase shows that Montreal has successfully affirmed itself as a French-speaking city, and yet is still accessible to both French and English speakers.

Of course, Trifiro’s initial hesitation to study in French is both understandable and telling about the state of language relations in Montreal. Some francophones are often closed-off and even hostile towards English-speaking Montrealers. I myself have gotten the infamous dagger eyes for speaking English with a friend in public. Yet French can be a complex and difficult language, and many people in Montreal—especially English-speaking university students—live here with less than adequate French skills, which I think is regrettable.

Languages are meant to be learned with passion and interest. Unlike what many might think, even with Pierre-Elliott Trudeau making both English and French Canada’s official languages in 1969, Canada is not and will never be a truly bilingual country—except in Montreal.

To be fair, I’m fine with that. Not everyone needs to be bilingual, so long as we can be civil and accept each other. In a way, I do feel a sense of pride in seeing anglophones acknowledging that French is necessary to build a career in Quebec. I think that has always been the point of encouraging French education, at least for a portion of the population.

To get another perspective, I spoke with Alexandre Viger-Collins, a Concordia political science graduate. Despite what his first name suggests, he is 100 per cent anglophone. He grew up in an anglophone community where, he confessed, people don’t have much incentive to learn French.

Nonetheless, he ended up studying political science at UdeM, which was more or less an accident. While attending a French university was never his intention, he said he is now positive that it was for the best. Viger-Collins said he intends to work in provincial politics, and while studying in French will certainly have a positive effect on his career prospects in this province, he said he has also gained much more insight into Quebec’s culture. He said he now feels more integrated into the society.

The bridge between French and English in this province needs to be built on both sides. Although I believe we francophones have work to do in terms of accepting those who don’t speak French, I am confident in saying that Montreal has become a good place for both communities to live in, despite recurring tensions. Ultimately, I think the attitude of people like Trifiro and Viger-Collins encourages this generation and future generations to have a different outlook on the French language.

This recent surge in anglophones choosing to study in French seems to be an indicator that the city is changing for the better.

In light of this, my hope for the future is not only that more anglophones attend French

universities, but that they do so with motivation, for the love of the French language—not by force or as a last resort. When it comes to education, I believe we should let go of the politics and give more room to the poetics of language.

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

A previous version of this article indicated that details about Serena Trifiro’s experience had been quoted from a Montreal Gazette article rather than paraphrased. The Concordian regrets the error.

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