Je m'excuse

Editor's note: this post is an excerpt of a memoir written by Jonathan Kay, editor-in-chief of The Walrus. Click here to read his complete and touching testimony.

To be an Anglo in Quebec during the 1980s was to be born into a multiply nested counterculture. I was a Jew within the Anglo community, an Anglo within Quebec, a Quebecer within English-speaking Canada, and a Canadian within an American-dominated continent. It was a status that imparted to us an inborn suspicion of all things mainstream - including the arena-rock hair bands that we saw on MuchMusic. I felt a closer cultural kinship with Claude Rajotte than with Erica Ehm or Steve Anthony, whether I was watching him on MusiquePlus in French or listening to him on CHOM–FM in English. Despite all my language bigotry, I found myself buying French albums during my trips to Dutchy’s (including, yes, Mitsou).

Sometimes, I’d watch sports in French - the cultural attitudes of the commentators often seemed closer to my own than did the hayseed Canadiana of Howie Meeker and Don Cherry. On school trips to Quebec City and Ottawa, I came to appreciate - on some level, at least - that the uneasy cohabitation of French and English was essential to the creation of a Canadian identity. Standing on the Plains of Abraham, you realize that history feels more real in Quebec than it does in many other parts of the country: the waxing and waning of English and French powers vis-à-vis one another has no counterpart beyond the province’s borders. [...]

Even now, as someone who has lived in Toronto for almost two decades, I cannot shake the Quebec out of me. Both professionally and socially, I notice that my human bonds grow fastest and strongest with other members of the Quebec diaspora. Those multiply nested countercultures seem to give us a unique outlook on life - a combination of self-awareness, clannishness, polyglotism, and cosmopolitan posturing that often leaves us chatting alone, amongst ourselves in the kitchen, at parties in Toronto and Vancouver. The jokes we tell and the questions we ask may be in English. But the backstory comes with French subtitles.


Terry DiMonte: Mister Montréal

Editor's note: this post is a translation of an interview with Terry DiMonte, conducted by Marc Cassivi, author of the book Mauvaise langue and columnist at La Presse. Click here to read the original French text.

Terry DiMonte has been hosting the morning show at CHOM-FM since 1984, with a four-year hiatus in Calgary and a few years in competing Montréal stations. The man is from Verdun, born to a father of Italian descent and an English-Canadian mother. He grew up in Pierrefonds, during the 60s. Conversation about the two solitudes...

Marc Cassivi: I often listened to you on CHOM in the morning when I was 12 and my father drove me to school. Today, I listen to you while driving my 12 and 9-year old sons. I hope it doesn't make you feel too old!

Terry DiMonte: On the contrary! It makes me very happy to hear that. I meet other parents who tell me the same thing.

Marc Cassivi: It's been over 30 years!

Terry DiMonte: I was 26, when I started. I was lucky. CHOM had difficulties, so they gave me the morning show. I was in Winnipeg at the time. The timing was perfect. There was no pressure, we had a lot of freedom.

Marc Cassivi: Since that time, you've become part of Montréal's social fabric...

Terry DiMonte: I'm an Anglo, but I feel as Québécois as any other guy who calls himself de souche. I'm very attached to Québec and Montréal. They're in my veins. I spent four years in Calgary - it was not my first choice - and I missed Québec a whole lot. I remember a visit, while living in Calgary, with my friend Sylvie Brunetta in Laval. She was listening to a song by Jean-Pierre Ferland [Un peu plus haut, un peu plus loin], sung by Céline Dion and Ginette Reno on the Plains of Abraham. When Ginette Reno sang, it was so powerful that I was moved almost to tears. Sylvie turned to me and said, "Hey, what's going on with you?" It touched me as much as it touched her, though I am a bloody square head! [Laughs] What distinguishes Québec... I don't know how to describe it, I don't always feel part of it, but I understand it. I was listening to Québec idols singing in Québec city a Québécois song written by a Québec monument, and it made me vibrate. I left Alberta and I realized...

Marc Cassivi: ... how much you missed Québec?

Terry DiMonte: How Québécois I am! Although it is sometimes complicated. I remember one summer in NDG, in the 80s: a guy called Tony had a restaurant named Cosmo's. I looked one day and this man in his sixties was up on a ladder, repainting his sign to hide the English words because he had problems with the "language police". It hurt me. I come from here too. I was born here. And I was told that my language did not fit here. But when Ginette Reno sings, I get all choked up. It's a strange feeling.

Marc Cassivi: But you do understand that, to survive, the French language must be protected?

Terry DiMonte: I am absolutely in favor of Bill 101. Some refuse to believe that English speakers understand the aspirations of Francophones, but most of us do. I've seen things evolve. I was a child in Verdun and everything was written in English. It wasn't fair nor equitable. It's difficult for many to understand, but from an Anglo's perspective, [the adoption of the Charter of the French Language] in 1977, was quite a shock. Today, with hindsight, I understand it very well. I often say: if you can't buy yourself a Métro ticket, order at the restaurant or ask for directions in French in Québec, you should take lessons or leave. Because French is the language of the majority.

Marc Cassivi: Bill 101 has allowed children of immigrants like Sugar Sammy to become bilingual or trilingual.

Terry DiMonte: And it has trained a generation of Sugar Sammy, perfectly at ease in French and English. I was born and I grew up here. And yet, I haven't had the chance to learn French [well enough] for us to do this interview in French! I speak French like a Anglo. My father spoke Italian at home and he married an Anglophone. His brothers married Francophones, the only French I learned was that of my aunts. I understand that French is what makes Québec so unique. But sometimes radicals - "angryphones" Anglos as much as ultranationalist Francophones - drive me to despair. Things have changed a lot, but there are still people on both sides who do not want to listen.

Marc Cassivi: The vast majority of us live peacefully...

Terry DiMonte: From time to time, in a shop, someone says, "Bonjour/Hi!". For me, this is not the end of the world. Even if I understand the feeling of insecurity. That said, I've never felt that my presence here was detrimental to French in any way whatsoever. My grandparents were born in Italy, my uncles and aunts didn't speak a word of English, my cousins ​​speak French... When I saw this restaurant owner repaint his sign to remove the English words, I felt bad because I feel Québécois. I do not feel like a threat to Québec.

Marc Cassivi: How has Québec evolved in the 32 years that you've been doing radio?

Terry DiMonte: I think things have improved. The majority of Anglophones who stayed - because several left in the 70s - remained because they feel at home here. We do not feel foreign in Québec. Many of my high school friends left because they were afraid. But the new generation of English speakers no longer see things the same way.

Marc Cassivi: They don't feel marginalized...

Terry DiMonte: Sometimes, I see a angry guy on television and I think he would be happy if all Anglos had left. It's not very pleasant, but it's really a small minority discourse that we hear less and less. I often tell my friends who live in the West: Québec is the most interesting place to live in this country and there are no people more generous than the Québécois.

Marc Cassivi: And yet, despite thirty years at the helm of a popular morning show in Montréal, you're still not very well known among Francophones. There's still a cultural divide...

Terry DiMonte: Of course. This is understandable. My Ontario or Alberta friends also ask me, "Who are these stars at the ADISQ gala?" I am a very big fan of Serge Fiori, who was one of my idols when I was a teenager and whom I interviewed recently for the first time. He invited me to his home. It's one of my fondest interview memories of my whole life. He told me how ironically, after the famous Saint-Jean concert on the mountain in 1976, after believing they would soon have their own country and stayed up all night, guys from Harmonium went at Beauty's for breakfast, the bastion of Montréal's Anglo-Jewish culture. That, for me, is Montréal!


What I would tell an immigrant

Editor's note: this post is a translation of an opinion piece written by Boucar Diouf, a stand-up comic, raconteur, biologist and TV host. Click here to read the original French text.

Before leaving Sénégal for Québec in 1991, I was told about culture shock, temperature, freedom, openness, humor and many other aspects of the identity and culture of its people. But nobody told me about this unique relationship that the majority of Québécois have with religion. Yet, it is of the utmost importance to inform people that immigrating to Québec is far from being the same as settling in the rest of Canada. Québec has a relationship with religion, and gender equality, that even the Western part of the country barely understands. For proof, just remember how the death of Dr. Henry Morgentaler befell people here while you could almost hear some of our neighbors to the West say "good riddance!".

The debate about the Charter led me to think that the exercise was indispensable. Religious extremism can in no way mesh with French-language Québec culture. In fact, had I to inform an immigration applicant on the subject, this is what I would say:

"Sir, before you leave, you should know that since the mass desertion of churches, caused by the Quiet Revolution, the majority of Québécois have a very peculiar relationship with religion. Québec may have the highest rate of agnostic citizens in North America. To the point that, today, it is mainly missionaries from the South, Latin America and Africa, that timidly try to rekindle the faith in some parts of la belle province."

"Once very pious, this nation has become the territory of the greatest blasphemers of the galaxy. Here, not content with having transformed churches into condos, we recycled liturgical accessories into as many swear words that punctuate the local language and make the delight of stand-up comics who have become champions all categories of religious desecration."

"You are about to come to the most open and peaceful nation in North America. You are about to meet women who are among the most assertive and egalitarian in the Western world; where the mere mention of religious rights causes a general urticaria crisis; where the right to abortion is non-negotiable; where men are entitled to paternity leave; where marriage is no longer a sacred institution and one of every two couples divorces when things go sour; where teenagers in their puberty are allowed to kiss and date; where gays and lesbians conspicuously display their orientation and have the right to marry; where sex change to find one's existential balance is also well accepted."

"It is all these qualities that make Québec, while not perfect, a land of freedom, openness and tolerance, for those who are willing to keep an open mind. If I tell you all this, it is because some of these very progressive social gains, which proudly cement our collective identity, are incompatible with a strict reading of religious dogmas. These social gains could very well lead many extremists to look at us as representatives of Satan on Earth."

"Then sir, with all this information, if you have no objection that one day your children may date, kiss, sleep with and marry one of ours, it is because you are agnostic or practice your religion with moderation. Québec is thus an obvious choice to make it a land of your own."

Yes, Fatima Houda-Pepin, you are right to believe that fundamentalists are the real enemies of secularism! I would add that they also are the enemies of the vast majority of believers, whom they harm by rebound.


A bird in the hand

I work in a completely bilingual environment. Anglos and Francos working together speaking whichever of the two languages feels the most comfortable or is best suited for the occasion. Truly a great working experience.

I was having a casual conversation on the current Québec elections with one of my Anglo colleagues this week. He was whining about the general state of political instability the province has been in for so long, putting forward that it was detrimental to the economy of both the country and the province; I agree. When I replied that he was right and added that the only party with a proposal to solve this instability is the Parti Québécois, he looked at me puzzled.

I explained that, although support for sovereignty has been under the 40% mark for a while, the vast majority of Québécois is against the constitutional status quo. Polls found that seven out of 10 believe the Québec government should try to initiate constitutional change in Canada. I stressed that proponents of the federalist option mostly look away, sweeping the issue under the rug, pretending that Canada is a united country. "This is the cause of the instability", I added. "Maintaining a fertile ground for the sovereignty movement." He was not sure what to think.

He then confessed he voted for the PLQ through early vote. "I understand that you would not vote for the PQ, but why not CAQ?" I asked. He replied he voted strategically for the option with the most chance of preventing a PQ victory... I recently rationalized his decision.

Faced with the decision between:
  1. a party that will perhaps hold a referendum that will perhaps be victorious that will perhaps be detrimental to Anglos; and
  2. a party that saw the provincial debt increase from G$125 to G$175 in the nine years it was in power and did everything it could to prevent the Charbonneau Commission.
... he chose the latter.

I gather this gives a whole new meaning to the old saying: "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."