Guy Rex RodgersWhat We Choose To Remember

I remember vividly the first time I became an honorary francophone. It was at a New Year’s Eve party where I made a friend who shared my taste in music. Late in the evening she turned to me saying, “I love this song!” It was by Leonard Cohen and she began translating the lyrics into French. I had recently arrived in Montreal to study at the National Theatre School and my second-language proficiency was minimal, so alcohol played the major role in my elevation to ‘honorary francophone’ but I remember feeling jubilant that my efforts to learn French were appreciated.

By the time I graduated, I loved the bilingual nature of Montreal and the two solitudes were melting sway. I felt I truly belonged in Quebec when the Minister of Culture appointed me to the founding board of le Conseil des arts et des letters du Québec in the early 90s, and then a couple of decades later when I was among the first group of companions welcomed into the newly created Ordre des arts et des lettres du Québec. My love for this adopted home felt reciprocated.

During the past year, as I have been touring my documentary film What We Choose To Remember, I have encountered people who are questioning their relationship with Quebec under the current political regime. Ever since the ‘Conquest’ the descendants of Nouvelle France have had a fraught relationship with the invaders. Many of us have listened to francophone friends rant about “les maudits Anglais” but when we ask if we are included in the rogues’ gallery the reply is invariable, “Ben non. T’es pas un vrai!” (No, you’re not a real one.)

The Golden Square Mile elite were easy to dislike, in the abstract, as the rapacious 1%. However, real Anglos like Leonard Cohen and Susie Arioli have been highly esteemed. Large numbers of immigrants, particularly in Montreal, create uncertainty and fear. Countries are large as the USA, the UK and France feel threatened by rapidly changing demographics. Quebec is no different. The unknown immigrant is a source of fear, but real immigrants like Dany Laferrière and Kim Thuy have been a source of pride.

For the past couple of years we have been hearing a double message. Political voices have stridently warned about the danger of English, Anglos and immigrants. Tough laws were needed because of ‘bad’ Anglos and immigrants who threatened Quebec’s French language and culture. We were also told, “Bill 96 will not affect ‘good’ Anglos and immigrants because you are not the problem.”

Bill 21 was divisive but limited its reach to the public sphere. Citizens retained the right to practice religion as ostentatiously as they desire in the privacy of their own homes. Bill 96 has not clearly made this distinction. The zealous defenders of Bill 96 do not believe Quebec will be safe until we all speak French everywhere, even in the privacy of our own homes.

Unfortunately, for them, many of us prefer to be bilingual and multilingual. This is true of Anglos, Allophones, most immigrants and also many Francophones, particularly the younger cohorts. This represents a serious clash of visions for the future. We need to have a serious conversation in 2023 about whether Quebec is going to deal with our multilingual reality or continue squandering time and energy on a unilingual fantasy.

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]