Commentary  Editorial: McGill n’est pas une île

If Quebec is a nation within a nation, we can’t help but feel that McGill is a foreign concession. In Montreal, McGill stands for all things anglo; it was founded by an Anglican Scot, the majority of students are anglophone, and besides the French Language and Literature program, every one of the University’s departments runs in English.

While many universities function entirely in English though it isn’t the language of their host country – the American University of Paris, or International University of Bremen, to name a few – Quebec’s case is different. Here, language is politics. For centuries, one’s language has said a lot about their socio-economic status and heritage. From the 1960s onward, francophones have fought a hard, and often controversial, battle for recognition of their rights – which twice almost split Canada in two.

McGill students arrive in Montreal and are immersed in one of the few remaining unilingual pockets in our city. On campus, in residences, and all over the Ghetto, you can just about get away with speaking little to no French for four years. It’s easy for students to get locked into a small circuit that leaves huge portions of the city unexplored.

It’s no wonder that Montrealers sometimes think of loud, drunk McGill students as parasitic. But we wonder whether McGill’s relations with the surrounding community would improve if students could master even a conversational level of French, making it clear that both the institution and its members have taken their head out of the anglo sand and recognized that yes, in Montreal, people speak French.

Our student body’s unilingualism can make the University function like a revolving door; students arrive, give Montreal a whirl, and then, diploma in hand, fly right back to where they came from. Patterns in universities perpetuate patterns in the community as a whole.

Without knowing the language, there’s no incentive to invest in the community, and it’s next to impossible to start a career here without at least passable French.

For starters, we’d like to see Quebec culture better reflected in our academic offerings. The administration and the institutional decisions McGill makes impact how students view their surroundings, even set the tone of student culture. There is only one Quebec history class running this semester, and the demand for French language classes is so high that the University prohibits part-time students from enrolling. Minimal support of French culture sends the green light to students that they too can ignore it.

McGill needs to provide more opportunities for anglophone students to integrate with the surrounding community – outside the framework of a three-credit French class.

With better publicity and investments in the French program, the University can make French more accessible and popular. The University should start by more prominently advertising French classes in the course calendar for U0 students, and departments like English and Anthropology could easily incorporate a greater emphasis on Quebec culture in their courses. The French as a Second Language department is already overloaded, and students need more than just a class to truly embrace French.

We considered whether requiring a French language class before graduation was the solution to McGill’s unilingualism, but realized just one class hardly does enough to introduce students to a culture.

Instead, we urge McGill to set up a French homestay program as an alternative to residence. We urge McGill to advertise the federal government’s J’explore program, which funds six weeks of homestay and French classes in small Quebec towns – and to support similar initiatives for non-Canadian students. Although McGill is underfunded, we suspect the provincial government would help; it’s in Quebec’s interest to keep McGill’s graduates here.

Whatever route it chooses, McGill must work with the province to provide students with more opportunities to immerse themselves in the language and culture of this province.