As a McGill student from Quebec, and as a francophone, I am surprised by the extent to which students in our university are oblivious to where they live. From my experience at McGill, the students I speak with (who admittedly only represent a small sample) are generally uninformed on Quebec politics, have not travelled in the province, and have little geographical or historical knowledge of the region. They are also rarely involved in groups or activities outside of McGill, and few know much about greater Montreal.
The fact that few students speak French does not surprise me though, it’s that few have any interest in learning it. For many Western students foreign to Quebec, learning French is the only challenging adjustment specific to moving to here. I am struck when I see graduating students who don’t even speak a minimum of French. If they go on to leave Quebec after graduating, they will have lived four years in a francophone province without having learned the local language.
The fact that few students speak French does not surprise me though, it’s that few have any interest in learning it.
For these two reasons (although there are others), most recognize that McGill is a self-enclosed ‘bubble’ within Montreal. It is true that McGill keeps its students busy, and that French is not an easy language to learn. The situation is also understandable since Montreal is easy to navigate in English. But from an outside perspective, for someone who does not understand the dynamics of the ‘McGill bubble,’ to leave McGill with a degree but no knowledge of French or Quebecois culture is bizarre. It could also be perceived as close-minded. If anything, it’s a shame.
From this brief and rather biased assessment comes an obvious question: why does this matter? Why should McGill’s students care about Quebec, or the French language? The answer is that they should care about these things for their own sake.
Say I told you that I lived in Spain for four years but didn’t speak any Spanish, hadn’t travelled in Spain, hadn’t immersed myself in Spanish culture, didn’t know any Spanish songs, and didn’t know anything about Spanish history. What opinion would people have of me? They would probably say I’m close-minded.
French isn’t only related to job opportunities, it’s the gateway to Quebec. French allows people to become part of the Montreal community, and the province, rather than just staying as detached, transient visitors. It opens the door to knowledge, to different people, and to a better understanding of the province.
Overall, the closed mindset of the ‘McGill bubble’ is a loss both to students and to Quebec.
Being a student involves more than being taught and learning what professors teach. It is also about discovering. As students, we have a unique opportunity to use our time in a relatively free manner, to take the sort of risks we will not be able to take later, and to discover things that will soon become inaccessible. Being at university presents an opportunity to explore the world, to challenge our predispositions, to get to know the ‘other,’ as well ourselves better. Living abroad, in a place with a different culture and language, can be an excellent way to do these things – but only if you put in the effort. Quebec and its uniqueness offer favourable ground for such purposes.
Overall, the closed mindset of the ‘McGill bubble’ is a loss both to students and to Quebec. As a Quebecer, I greatly enjoy McGill for both its diversity and its students. They can bring freshness into Montreal’s community, offer perspectives that could open our eyes to various issues, and help us understand what defines us. I wish students would engage more with the province; they, as well as Quebec, would stand to benefit.
Martin Tremblay is a pseudonym. To contact the writer, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.