Guy Rex RodgersWhat We Choose To Remember

When I arrived in Quebec I was an undesirable immigrant, at least by the standards of Francois Legault’s CAQ government. I could not speak French and my mother tongue made me un maudit Anglais.

It was 1980, the year of the first referendum. Hundreds of thousands of Quebecers (mostly Anglos and Allophones) were exiting la belle province.  I quickly discovered a strange double standard here. English-speakers born in Quebec were mercilessly criticised for their imperfect mastery of French while immigrants were applauded for speaking even a few words. Although I was born in Canada and received my elementary education in Vancouver, I had spent my teens and early 20s in Australia so I passed myself off as a foreign immigrant.

The exuberant joual-inflected Québécois culture of the day was contagious. I immersed myself in the theatrical world of Michel Tremblay and the music of Beau Dommage, Paul Piché and Offenbach. After acquiring a minimal grasp of French, I translated Michel Rivard’s ‘La Complaint du Phoque en Alaska.’ My girlfriend knew Michel and got my translation to him. He liked it, but for Michel Rivard to sing in English, even his own song, was unthinkable. He gave it to the Acadian singer Edith Butler and she performed it.

Before I knew it, I was a translator, although my language training was limited to three Assimil cassette tapes and the book French For Beginners. For several years after graduating from the playwriting program at the National Theatre School I had a lucrative side-gig translating TV programs. My first major contract was 100+ episodes of the teen soap opera Chambres en ville.

I should mention that, like many immigrants, I married a francophone and we educated our children in French. If Francois Legault were to meet our children professionally or personally, he would never guess that half their genes come from an undesirable non-Francophone immigrant.

In the early 90s Quebec’s Minister of Culture appointed me to the founding board of the newly created Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec. Seated at a table with some of the most eloquent artists of the day I realized that my slangy, self-taught French was woefully inadequate so I embarked on a correspondence course of high school French.

Most of the Anglos and Allophones I know have their own stories about learning French, making friends (and lovers) with Francophones and embracing the culture of Quebec. Every story is different but a variation on the same theme: non-Francophones choose to migrate or stay here because we value Quebec’s French language and culture. We see ourselves as friends and allies of Quebec, which is why the dog-whistle rhetoric of Bill 96 is so maddening.

When I launched my documentary film What We Choose To Remember last summer one of the first people to ask for a screening copy was journalist Josée Legault. Her first question was, ‘Parlez-vous français?’ To be fair, she probably meant ‘Do you speak French well enough to do this interview in your second language?’ but implicit in her question was the myth that Anglos barely speak enough French to buy a six-pack at the corner dépanneur.

I will never forget attending a conference at McGill on the 30th anniversary of Bill 101. The invited speaker was Pierre Curzi, PQ culture critic and thespian known for films like Le Déclin de L’empire americain. Curzi agreed to speak at McGill on the condition that they provide a simultaneous translation service. He arrived expecting to see the audio equivalent of 1950s 3D glasses for movies and was flabergasté to see no headphones in the crowd. The PQ’s culture critic could not believe there were 100 Anglos in Quebec able to understand a speech in French without assistance.

A great deal of the fear that has justified Bill-96 is based on misinformation and myths. This wilful blindness is seriously dommage and there is nothing beau about it.

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]

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