Being Québécois

"Boy!... do Frenchmen ever crave on you guys!" I was told by an English-speaking classmate during my Bishop's University years. "Le Québécois, c'est une langue qui gratte!" he added. "What do you mean, Québécois is a language that rakes?" I asked befuddled. My friend had just met with a few international students who were discovering the Québécois accent in real life.

Those were the late 80s. Québécois singers were invading France. They're still very much present today, but that particular period was especially rich and the French reception was very positive. The phenomenon gave much exposure to the particular way French is spoken on this side of the Atlantic, a tad more guttural than its European counterpart to say the least.

I always liked cultural encounters. I'm usually very enthusiastic and blunt about such situations and, from time to time, my curiosity has been interpreted as invasive. I've experienced the feeling. I've also learned to be more tactful with those who would rather blur their cultural differences.

While travelling France in the early 90s, I was having supper with English-speaking tourists in a youth hostel. A few were from Canada and obviously spotted my origins. Most were from Australia, New Zealand, England, the USA... and hadn't realized English wasn't my first language. Upon ordering more wine to the passing garçon in French, all eyes turned on me.

"Where did you learn to speak French?" I was asked. "It's my mother tongue" I replied. I was then the center of much attention about my province and what it's like to be Québécois. Here are a few examples of what I (might or should) have said. Being Québécois is:
  • giving English-speaking North Americans a little bit of France without the Parisians and giving Frenchmen a little bit of North America without the Americans;
  • feeling as comfortable in Paris as in New-York;
  • being reminded by a Parisian garçon that you are in a French bistro, when feeling at home and nonchalantly ordering nachos to satisfy your late afternoon munchies;
  • listening to Plume Latraverse on your iPod while visiting the Louvre and making perfect sense out of it all;
  • being able to make the rapprochement between a tartiflette au reblochon, a French dish from the Savoie region, and a poutine, a North American greasy spoon favorite;
  • having the opportunity to appreciate French movies and their American remakes in their original versions, e.g. La total with Thierry Lhermitte (an easy going police comedy) and True Lies with Arnold Schwarzenegger (a overblown popcorn movie); Nikita with Anne Parillaud and Point of No Return with Bridget Fonda;
  • having the option to easily steer away from McDonald's or Tim Hortons to eat a decent meal at a decent price;
  • giving a North American fast food classic, a burger, a Mediterranean twist with lamb meat garnished with steamed spinach, garlic and feta cheese (ok... this one's not typically Québécois, but it sure is a good example of interculturalism, whereas multiculturalism would have offered an exotic side dish with an ordinary burger);
  • turning a North American greasy spoon favorite, poutine, into a "Tunisian" meal, by adding merguez sausages, or turning it into a gourmet meal, by adding foie gras;
  • going beyond pâtés and appreciating rillettes and cretons for what they are;
  • being able to choose from over 200 different local cheeses that rival with centuries of European tradition and savoir-faire;
  • realizing that more people on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean are familiar with your own culture than people on the other side of the Ottawa River and being labeled by some of them as closed-minded;
  • watching or reading your own national media on a local issue and getting the impression the report was prepared by a foreign journalist;
  • listening to homegrown music, watching homegrown TV and movies and feeling that unmistakable sense of belonging.
So they say...


Skinny Dipper said...

Quebeckers sound like ducks when speaking French. There's no nicer way to put it.

Feel free to comment what English Canadians sound like compared to Brits or different Americans.

Michel Bolduc said...

Actually, Canadian English usually sounds real nice compared to other variations of the language. What would be cool however is you sharing how being Canadian feels like... quack!?

Skinny Dipper said...

What does it feel like being Canadian? That's a tough one. I won't give you the answer, "Not American." I also don't want to mention things like having health-care and the CBC. I think a tourist visiting Toronto would not care about seeing those two things here.

I can only think about being a Canadian from Toronto. I feel as if I am living in a small international city. It doesn't compare to London or Paris. It is one of the few Canadian cities that is open to the world. I would compare Toronto to Frankfurt. It's a business city but not a historic tourist city. Toronto does have the CN Tower and Eaton Centre. Other cities have similar attractions.

Being a Canadian in Toronto, I know I live in a multicultural city. At the same time, I know that I can speak English 100% of the time. All the other languages spoken are "ethnic" languages including French. Mind you, there are no francophone neighbourhoods in Toronto. Unlike Montreal where I need to decide if I should speak English or my lousy French; in Toronto, I can always choose to speak English even if the other person can't speak it very well. Essentially, I live in a multicultural Toronto under an English-speaking environment.

As a Canadian living in Toronto, I live in a North American city. I enjoy watching American culture and sports events on TV--sometimes at the expense of Canadian events such as watching the CFL over NFL football. Do I care about the Saskatchewan Roughriders? No I don't. Do I care about the NFL Buffalo Bills? Yes. Mind you, I have never been to Buffalo in my life. I have been to Regina several times.

While I am influenced by the Canadian laws that are supported by MPs from Quebec, I don't see the daily influence of Québécois or francophone society on my daily life. I'm not ready to order poutine just yet. Because of the legal influence from Quebec's MPs in our federal parliament, I am perhaps more accepting of other groups than if I were living in a homogeneous society.

I don't know if you have ever been to Toronto. If you have, you may wish to share what it is like to be here compared to Montreal.

toddsschneider said...

Even the Americans recognize the duck-like qualities of the Quebecois accent. The animated DVD "Open Season 2" has 2 mallard characters named Serge and Denis. Or is that just a canard?

Altavistagoogle said...

"poutine, a North American greasy spoon favorite".

Poutine is a very regional dish. Hard to get it outside Quebec. And not to be confused with the poutine acadienne that you will get in Edmundston. But don't call Edmundstonians Acadians, as they will get insulted. They prefer Brayon.

Such regional nuances can be attributed to the English, Australian, New Zealander and American tourist you met at the youth hostel.

Discovering those cultural nuances, in manner, accent and vocabulary, is quite enriching and I highly recommend it.

Michel Bolduc said...

Well... there seems to be a consensus around ducks here. Inuits call us "Oui-oui-tituk", because of our habit of repeating "yes". I guess it's the price to pay for being so easily identifiable. I've seen worst.


Influences are often so well integrated that you can't see them. Ever wondered why North America, a British colony, drives on the right side of the road? The "canadianity" you're so familiar with is very much the result of French Canadian stubbornness; try The Québécois aren't truly Canadians. As for being in Toronto, I've gone many times. I should write something about these escapades.


I was using "North American" as in "Not European". Poutine is still very much associated with Québec, but it's now becoming a Canadian thing. It's also available in New-York for those with a curious mind.

Anonymous said...

Poutine is- and has been- easily and readily available throughout Toronto for well over a decade. Perhaps fifteen years at least? Before that it was more of a specialty item, but could be had.

By the way, your description of interculturalism is interesting. Quebecers make a difference between multiculturalism and interculturalism and extrapolate that as if their understanding of the terms were true throughout Canada. It's not. The dish you describe would be called 'multicultural' in Toronto, meaning the merging of cultures together to create something new: fusion. English-Canadians don't think of multiculturalism as newcomers coming in and maintaining all of their old traits and living merrily alongside us. There is the expectation that they 'become Canadian', whatever that means in concrete terms. The mixing of old and new is what we understand as multiculturalism, while maintaining a respect for the local culture, a requirement to speak English, etc. I don't see any real difference between multiculturalism as it's practised in English-Canada and Quebec's 'interculturalism'.

Michel Bolduc said...

That's interesting. Thanks for the insight.

Anonymous said...

You'll notice the new booklet for citizenship for immigrants has been changed by the Conservatives and also comes from the point of view I've outlined above: they emphasize the traditions of this country, its founding peoples, its languages, culture, history, etc., and even has a section on how certain practices are neither legal nor welcome here (it explicitly lists things like female genital mutilation). This, form a gov't largely composed of English Albertans. It goes to show the idea that many people in Quebec have about how English Canadians view multiculturalism is not correct. It is a convenient view, though, for the sovereigntists to spread.

Michel Bolduc said...

Yes, I got your point.