Words Apart

A writer in Quebec finds that language creates an unbridgeable divide

In January 1989, I received a letter from François Hébert, the editor of Liberté, a French-Canadian cultural periodical. A proverbial little magazine, Liberté had a format that resembled a paperback book and a circulation of 3,000. Hébert 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 Hébert 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 Liberté letter.

I felt I should accept Hébert’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 Liberté 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 outside opinion—my books enjoyed the advantage of being read on their own merits, not out of any sense of misplaced cultural obligation.

Without going to London or Paris—as many Canadian writers have done—I became an expatriate. In the process I gained, as any expatriate does, not only a different audience, but a different outlook. This difference was brought home to me when I returned from my intellectual emigration. My third book had been well enough received to have attracted Canadian readers, and I found myself invited to write for Canadian magazines and newspapers. From my retreat on the 45th parallel I began looking north.

It is from this vantage point that I view the current argument over language in Quebec. One reason that I had enjoyed writing for an American audience was that it allowed me to explore wider issues than would have been possible had I remained a local writer. Nor was I obliged to address English Canada’s preoccupation with its supposed lack of a national identity—in that regard, my own mixed identity was trouble enough.

As far as identity was concerned, French-Canadians have always seemed to me more at ease, more self-assured than their English counterparts. The current national argument over language seems destined to translate this admirable self-assurance into nothing more substantial than enthusiastic flag-waving. Quebec now formally declares itself “distinct” from the rest of the country; paradoxically, this makes the province simply seem more Canadian. Just as many English nationalists are unable to define themselves except as “not like Americans,” French nationalists declare themselves to be “not like the people who are not like Americans.”

This would be cause for humor, if it did not have such disagreeable side effects. On both sides of the argument, generosity has given way to pettiness, and intellectual rednecks now set the tone. Ancient prejudices and ancient enmities are recklessly resuscitated. The once-cosmopolitan city of Montreal is in danger of becoming a linguistic Beirut. Sensibilities have become dulled to the point where the presence or absence of an accent aigu or an apostrophe is a political statement, and spray paint has replaced civilized discourse. Comparisons with historic examples of intolerance are exaggerated, but it is true that public policy seems to be made as much by vandals as by elected politicians. It is a sorry spectacle, and one that the rest of the world views with incomprehension.

What has been lost in the process is something very precious, more precious, in my view, than cultural or linguistic purity, or so-called collective rights, and that is individual identity. This is not so much a question of polarization as of stereotypes. The argument over language has stripped us—all of us—of our personal histories, and has substituted a single and simplistic biography. It has papered over the delicate shades that characterize everyday life with crude slogans and cruder regulations.

Last year I completed a book about the experience of building my own home in southern Quebec. Reflecting on the reasons that had impelled me to this location, I wrote: “Canadians go south to the Caribbean to avoid the winter cold, south to New York City to flee provincialism, and south over the border to avoid exorbitant liquor taxes and Sunday store closures. In Canada, south is the direction of escape. . .” If I were writing this today I would be obliged to add: “. . . south to flee narrow-mindedness.”*

The issue of Liberté, titled “Strangers in Paradise—Étranglés au Québec” (Strangled in Quebec), appeared in June. It merited only a few, brief mentions in the French-Canadian press, which referred to some of the 16 essays, though not to mine. I was not surprised since I had intentionally avoided being confrontational, and I was not known to French readers (a French translation of my book Home had only just appeared). Indeed, that was the point of my essay: an English-speaking writer in Quebec was necessarily, at least in my case, drawn to readers elsewhere. The Toronto Globe & Mail and the Montreal Gazette both reported on the Liberté issue—“A vocal minority speaks out on language clash” was the Globe headline—and both included the same quote from my essay: my offhanded reference to the danger of Montreal becoming a “linguistic Beirut.” I didn’t give it much thought.

On the whole, the June issue of Liberté was little noticed. Until, that is, Paul Lewis, The New York Times’ United Nations bureau chief, who was on a three-week assignment in Toronto, wrote about it. The theme of his article, which appeared in the “Word and Image” section of the daily paper, was that English-speaking writers and intellectuals living in Quebec were angry at being treated, in his words, “as a cultural enemy in their homeland.” To make the point, Lewis quoted extensively (if selectively) from the various contributors to Liberté. The reference to my essay was extremely brief, merely a line that mentioned “linguistic Beirut”—again. Oh well, I thought, at least it’s nice to be noticed.

In the same issue of the Times, Lewis wrote a news report that introduced American readers to the renewed debate over Quebec’s status in Canada, and in particular to the restrictive language laws. “These days the six million French-speaking Canadians are trying to put up new barricades against English assaults on their language and culture,” he wrote, “which some say are tantamount to separation from the rest of Canada in all but name.” The article painted a distinctly unfavorable picture of the province and gave the impression of officially sanctioned prejudice or, at least, narrow-mindedness. Such criticism did not pass unnoticed. The influential Le Devoir ran an editorial criticizing Lewis. The Presse Canadienne, a wire service, summed up the story: “These two New York Times articles are a departure from the paper’s normal coverage of Quebec. The image of an economically strong Quebec, trying by various means to preserve its language and culture, is now replaced by an unflattering description of an intolerant majority, harassing the individual rights of a minority that is discouraged but firmly determined to stay.”

A week after Lewis’s original stories, the Times published a letter from Gérard Cellier, a member of Quebec’s official trade delegation in New York, responding to Lewis’s two articles. The provincial government did not take kindly to being portrayed as bullying and highhanded. Cellier disputed some of the reporter’s facts, noting that Lewis had mischaracterized as riotous a rambunctious but peaceful Montreal demonstration opposing the Supreme Court ruling and had situated Meech Lake, the site of a constitutional conference, in Ontario, rather than in Quebec. He also cited the Liberté issue as an example of how English and French could bridge the “communications gap.” The letter ended with the observation: “One cannot speak of a ‘linguistic Beirut’ without falling into a form of extremism.” The author of the extremist remark was not identified.

By then, linguistic Beirut had achieved a life of its own. The phrase, mentioned in almost every article that appeared on the subject, whether in the French- or English-Canadian press, had become a shorthand way to refer to the incident, like Watergate or Iran-Contra. To cap it off, La Presse, the largest daily in Quebec, ran a front-page story on the government’s response to the Times under the banner headline: “Le Québec n’a rien d’un ‘Beyrouth linguistique.’” (Quebec is not a “linguistic Beirut.”) My name did not appear in the accompanying article; the linguistic-Beirut reference was misattributed to “one of Paul Lewis’s sources.” Since La Presse’s report emphasized that Lewis had been posted in Toronto, the clear inference was that the quote came from an anglais in that city. That was fine with me. By this time I was getting concerned and had already changed our Montreal telephone number. Quite needlessly, as it turned out; in a week or two the incident was forgotten, although Quebec’s linguistic debate continued.

I had intended linguistic Beirut purely as a metaphor; the strife I imagined was a battle of words—not bullets. But that was not the way many people took it. Stupidly, I had forgotten that not so long ago, Quebec politics had been the cause of real violence. In the 1960s, a Marxist separatist group, inspired by European revolutionary youth movements and American Weathermen, blew up mailboxes and robbed banks in the name of national sovereignty. The Front de libération du Québec was responsible for several deaths, including the murder of a kidnapped cabinet minister, which precipitated the so-called October Crisis, when Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s government suspended civil liberties in the province. Eventually, the Front withered away, most of its leaders fleeing to Havana. The sovereignty movement, on the other hand, flourished, and in 1976 a self-declared separatist government came to power and quickly passed the language laws.


Bilingualism was an ever-present fact of life in Montreal, where I had gone to high school and later university. McGill University was English; the Université de Montréal, on the other side of Mount Royal—Mont Royal—was French. There were not only French and English schools and churches, but also separate movie houses, theaters, department stores, and hospitals. I studied French in secondary school, but I never used it; there was no need, because in my part of the city everyone spoke English. In Montreal, the division between the languages was geographical: St. Lawrence Boulevard—Boulevard Saint-Laurent to French-Canadians, and “the Main” to Jewish Montrealers—was a sort of Green Line, separating English-speaking Montreal on the west from French-speaking Montreal on the east.

The division of the city also reflected economic differences. West of the line were prosperous in-town communities such as Westmount and the Town of Mount Royal and middle-class suburbs, the so-called West Island; to the east were dense blue-collar neighborhoods, and farther out, factories and oil refineries. This reflected the division of economic power in the city, for in the 1960s, although French Canadians were a majority, the owners and managers of the major businesses remained English-speaking. A visitor who experienced only the area west of St. Lawrence Boulevard might be forgiven for thinking himself in an entirely English-speaking city. Indeed, in downtown department stores and shops, service was often exclusively in English, which of course upset French-Canadians and partially explains the later draconian language laws.

Canadian novelist Hugh McLennan famously referred to the French and English of Quebec as “two solitudes.” But in truth there were not two solitudes but many. Most French-Canadians were descendants of settlers from Normandy and Brittany (although there was considerable intermarriage over the centuries—Johnson, Ryan, Nelson, and Burns are all prominent French-Canadian names), but les anglais were anything but homogenous. To begin with, most of merchants and entrepreneurs who in the late 19th century had made Montreal into the leading city of Canada were not Englishmen but Scots. They created the leading English-speaking institutions of the city, including McGill University, whose building names—Macdonald, McConnell, McCord, McIntyre, Stewart—read like a gathering of the clans. Although Scots dominated the business world, the richest man in Montreal at that earlier time was an American, William Van Horne, the builder of Canada’s transcontinental railway. Scots bankers financed the railroad, but most of the hard labor was done by Irish workers, who formed another Montreal community. These Irish-Catholics founded their own churches and schools (including a high school, which I attended, and Loyola College). There were actually three school boards in Montreal: French, English-Protestant, and English-Catholic. Montreal also had a large Jewish (English-speaking) community, and although there was no Jewish school board, there were schools that were historically Jewish, as well as a Jewish hospital, Jewish libraries, Jewish community centers, and neighborhoods whose inhabitants were largely Jewish. These were not ghettos—many Montreal Jews were wealthy. Much smaller ethnic enclaves included a black neighborhood, not far from Windsor Station, a holdover from the time that railroad porters—redcaps—were largely black.

Next to the Moose Hall, where I played Dixieland jazz as a teenager, was a Hungarian community center. The Hungarian community consisted of refugees from the 1956 revolt who gathered in their own downtown restaurants. There you could get Debrecziner sausages, poppy-seed pancakes, and mouth-watering ludlab cake. Although the gastronomical traditions of English and French Montreal were unremarkable—roast beef and tourtière—the many solitudes produced a city unusually rich in cuisines. Long before ethnic food fads swept North America, Montreal had French, Belgian, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Polish, and Hungarian restaurants. Thus, the Montreal in which I lived as a young man, while not exactly Beirut, was a city divided by language, religion, ethnicity, and, not the least, cuisine.

Although, contrary to my fears, the linguistic-Beirut episode had no serious personal consequences, a related incident soon thereafter did. It concerned two old friends, Jacques and Marie-Hélène (not their real names). I had met Marie-Hélène around 1971. She edited a magazine with a local circulation and asked me to write an article for it—my first published nonacademic writing. Her husband, Jacques, was an intern in a downtown hospital. My wife, Shirley, and I saw them regularly, either at their Westmount townhouse, or on Ile Perrot, where we were living at the time. When Jacques finished his residency, he took a post in a regional hospital, several hundred miles from Montreal. They lived in a small fishing village, in a large frame house facing the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, and raised sheep. Over the next 17 years, we visited them annually; Shirley sometimes flew up alone. We watched their daughters grow up as we all grew older together.

I knew that Jacques and Marie-Hélène were committed Québecois nationalists, and it was an unspoken part of our friendship that we never discussed politics. Never, that is, until what turned out to be our last visit. We had driven up to their home that July to stay a week. Even in summer it is too cold to swim, but you can walk along the gravel beach; the river at that point is so broad you can’t see the other side, and it is like being at the seashore. By then our friends had given up sheep farming and had bought a roadside lobster house, which Marie-Hélène managed during the summer season. I admired their resourcefulness.

The evening before we were to leave, Marie-Hélène and Shirley cooked a special dinner of gigot d’agneau, and after dessert we sat around the table talking. The conversation, fueled by too much wine, finally turned to politics, more specifically, the current language laws and the need to protect French in Quebec. I don’t think that Jacques and Marie-Hélène were aware of my linguistic-Beirut adventure, and I at least had enough wits about me not to bring it up. But I did recklessly venture the opinion that the restrictive language laws of the province were both undemocratic and, ultimately, futile. You couldn’t preserve languages artificially, I argued, and in any case, languages changed over time. Of course, it was an easy argument to make for an English speaker in a North America almost entirely dominated by English. As someone who used Polish with my parents, English at work, and French at this particular dinner table, languages had always seemed to me more like tools than valuable artifacts, and I said so. Jacques took the opposite view. For him, language and culture were precious and needed to be protected. There were times when individual freedoms had to give way to collective rights; surely I could understand that? It was a centuries-old Canadian debate, one that proceeded from different assumptions, used different reasoning, and never seemed to reach a satisfactory resolution.


By this time, Shirley had wisely gone to bed. Meanwhile the conversation grew more heated. Jacques, in the manner of many surgeons, was self-confident and expressed his opinions strongly. He was not one to mince words; it was what I liked about him. At one point, he accused me of being an academic in an ivory tower, which I thought was unfair, given the time I spent working in Third World slums. I probably replied with some equally specious accusation.

The next morning, Shirley and I got up early to make the long drive back. Jacques and Marie-Hélène’s bedroom door was closed, and remained firmly closed while we made ourselves breakfast. We packed the car; still, no one came down. “What on earth did you say to upset them so?” Shirley asked. I couldn’t remember the details of the drawn-out debate, which had lasted well past midnight, but I did recall saying as I was going up to bed, “Bonne nuit, Jacques. Tu me fatigue.” I meant that he had worn me out, but Shirley, who was raised in French, pointed out that what I had really said was, “You’re so tiresome.” That couldn’t have helped.

When it became apparent that there would be no fond farewells, we left. It was a sad moment, for we both knew that it was unlikely that we would be coming back. Except for one distinctly cool telephone conversation, we never spoke to Jacques and Marie-Hélène again. I don’t believe that our 20-year friendship was ruptured by a simple semantic misunderstanding. It was, rather, the result of a mutual realization that what separated us, while it may have been quite narrow, was very, very deep. For Jacques and Marie-Hélène, as for many people in Quebec—and elsewhere—language is not merely a tool; it is, to a large extent, what defines their identity. Not so for me. I was willing to speak French—actually, I enjoyed it—and I was even prepared to put up with French store signs, but I knew that whatever I was, I wasn’t a Québecois—nor would I ever become one. In any case, for me that narrowing of my identity would have signified a loss, not a gain. It was not long after this unhappy incident that we began to think of leaving Quebec, looking south.

* Witold Rybczynski “Vers le Sud,” Liberté: Strangers in Paradise/Étranglés au Québec, vol. 31, no. 3, juin 1989, p. 25–28.

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Witold Rybczynski ’s latest book is The Story of Architecture.


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