Commentary | Mean streets

It’s time for francophone politicians to stop scaremongering about the precarity of the French language in Montreal and start talking about the real issues dividing francophones and anglophones on the island. This political power play has taken its most recent form in two motions presented at—and rejected by—City Council in August that proposed renaming streets that showed “undue” English influence.

The motions, authored by Nicolas Montmorency, councillor for Rivière-des-Prairies-Pointe-aux-Trembles, called for two separate actions: the renaming of rue Amherst, and the francisation of various mixed-language street names (e.g., rue City Councillors, avenue McGill College, rue University). Montmorency claims that it’s inappropriate to name a street after Jeffrey Amherst, who conquered Montreal for the British and favoured the use of smallpox-infected blankets on Aboriginals. He also says that names like City Councillors and McGill College “dilute” the French character of the city.

Whether or not Amherst pioneered germ warfare, the suitability of naming a street after him is beside the point. What’s important here is the motivation behind the second motions—the reflexive, unhealthy, anti-English attitude that presupposes the weakness of francophone culture. Montmorency says that these street names threaten an already-threatened language. In reality, it’s this absurd paranoia that convinces French-speakers to fear all things anglo and scares English-speakers into staying within their comfort zone, both by staying in the Ghetto and by speaking English in day-to-day transactions.

Does anyone really think that a couple of street names with English words in them threatens the future of French in our city? Can a language spoken by a vast majority of Montrealers – even if they speak another language at home – and learnt by the majority of new arrivals be in any danger from these signs? A strong language, free at last from the bonds of a psychological colonialism, will be generous of itself and accepting of others, receiving and borrowing freely from the cultures and tongues it is contact with. A vibrant language—and French is a vibrant language in Quebec—does not scurry away from a handful of toponyms.

The biggest threat to the French language in Montreal is the intimidation that such hysterics inspire in non-francophones. Fearful of speaking it poorly, stuttering and full of self-doubt, learners trip around in French at the grocery store, at the bank, on the bus, filling every sentence with self-deprecating apologies. Ex nihilo nihil: the fear that these political games causes in francophones in turn creates the fear that seizes anglophones in situations where French is required.

Fearful students will not venture into a new culture. Witness the low rate of McGill and Concordia students venturing into this province’s dominant culture. It’s true that there’s a lot of apathy on the part of many students—they come here to take advantage of the quality schools paid for by the tax money of the citizens of Quebec without thinking of exploring the society around them. Such students should learn French and use it. And no one should be discouraged—perseverance is the only sure method of gaining confidence.

But they need help. Both sides need to fashion a new attitude of openness and confidence. On the one hand, openness to English Canada and confidence that one’s sense of self will not disappear in interactions with others. On the other, openness to the culture of French Canada and confidence in one’s ability to learn a new language.

Montmorency should drop the fear mongering discourse and remind people of how strong their language is. As for us anglophones—well, let’s learn some French already.

William M. Burton is The Daily’s Commentary & Compendium! editor. He’s also a U3 student in Lettres et traduction françaises.

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