Guy Rex RodgersWhat We Choose To Remember

If you stand on Sainte-Catherine Street and ask Montrealers what the five floral emblems on their city’s flag represent, most will recognize only the fleur de lys and its roots in France. Few will know that the rose represents England, the shamrock, Ireland, and the thistle, Scotland. And if you ask why the flag of one of the largest French-speaking cities in the world pays tribute to three English-speaking countries, the response will often be puzzled silence.  I know this because I spent a day on Ste-Catherine Street last fall talking to Montrealers for my new documentary film.  This failure of memory might appear surprising in the land of je me souviens, but history is ephemeral.  It depends on What We Choose to Remember, which is the title of my new film. I have borrowed the title for this column because I want it to be a conversation about our shared experience of life in Quebec.

I began making the film on the 50th anniversary of the October crisis because people who were eyewitnesses to the turbulent events of the 1960s-90s are still very much alive and have vivid memories to share.  During the FLQ years, many kids in Anglo neighbourhoods had to beware of bomb threats and exploding mailboxes as they walked to school. Prior to Bill 101, Catholic school boards rejected large numbers of Allophones who were not Catholic, hence they ended up in the Protestant system. The unintended consequence for Quebec was that they were educated in English, which created a demographic time bomb for the French language.

The purpose of history is not to ruminate on past mistakes but to learn from them. Montreal was never the mythical city of two solitudes divided by Saint-Laurent Boulevard. French-speaking farmers worked side-by-side with Anglo farmers on the west side of town in what is now NDG. More than 100,000 English-speakers lived in Rosemount on the east side during the first half of the 20th century. Churches and schools bear silent witness to the people who built them. Fun fact: Outremont was 80% Anglo at the time of Confederation. Street names like Bloomfield, Fernhill, Hazelwood, Maplewood, Springgrove, Stuart, McCulough, McEachran, MacDougal and McNider make Outremont sound like a district in Edinburgh.

Now for some skill testing questions. (Answers below.) Question #1: In 1860, was the percentage of English-speakers in Montreal a) 23%  b) 38% or c) 51%? Question #2:  In 1900, were most of Montreal’s English-speakers a) millionaires living in the Golden Square Mile, b) working-class families living in Verdun and Rosemount, or c) middle-class families living in NDG and Outremont?  Question #3: In 1920, was Montreal’s third most spoken language (after French and English) a) Yiddish, b) Italian or c) Greek?

Montreal’s history is far more rich, complex and diverse than the official history taught in our high schools.  What We Choose To Remember, the film, celebrates that diversity in dozens of interviews with passionate, articulate characters who immigrated to Quebec from a multitude of countries.  You can watch the film on its webpage   I would love to hear how the stories in the film compare to your experiences.

What We Choose To Remember, this new column, will be a conversation about our experiences in this fascinating, frustrating and sometimes mystifying city we call home.  I expect the focus will skew toward recent history.  We are, once again, living in turbulent times.

Guy Rex Rodgers was founding Executive Director of the English Language Arts Network (ELAN) and recently returned to filmmaking. You can reach Guy at: [email protected]

Answers to the questions:  Q1 c);  Q2 b); Q3 a)

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