Sunday, January 01, 2006

I Beg To Differ

The Anglos, The Hidden Face of Quebec City
Volume II, Since 1850. Author: Louisa Blair

I beg to differ.

It is with some hesitation that I bought The Anglos, volume II, that is. I am by no means a historian, and I cannot claim to be steeped in the history of Quebec City. I am reacting with my gut, as someone born here in Quebec City. I have lived here most my life except for various periods of self-imposed exile which began with a two year hiatus for boarding school in Halifax, at that crucial age of 16. I would later leave this town so often out of fear and frustration only to return because I missed that certain je-ne-sais-quoi that I did not find elsewhere. My own “crise d’indépendence” took me across the pond and down to the most southern point of the African continent, Cape Town, South Africa. My thinking was that if it was good for my mother’s sister and her family, then I would be alright there. How naive one can be at 22—another bilingual country and I did not speak the other language... But that is another story.

My mother was British. My father is a French Canadian. My paternal grandfather, a French Canadian from Chicoutimi, graduated, at the turn of the 20th century, from Queen’s University, Kingston, with a degree in Civil Engineering. He returned to Quebec with not only that degree in hand, but with an excellent grasp of the English language. He would go on to become the chief engineer responsible for the building the railroads linking the mining town of Chibougamau with the Saguenay port of Baie des Ha Ha and with Quebec City. My mother was a war bride. My parents met and married in Scotland. My eldest brother was born in England, but my three younger brothers and I were born here in Quebec City. My mother was 75% Irish and 25% English. She was English. It was the 25% that counted and that is what my brothers and I grew up with. My mother was English, High Church of England, and not Irish Catholic. Those Irish roots were buried never to be mentioned or celebrated. I had an English education in Quebec City and Halifax, NS. My mother tongue is English and I consider myself an English speaking native of Quebec City, and a Canadian first and foremost.

I am also one of the hidden faces of the English Face of Quebec City. I did not attend any of the public schools of Quebec City. I am not part of the St. Pat’s nor the Quebec High clique. I went to Marymount, a private school that is barely mentioned in the book. My parents had planned on sending me to Bellevue which once had an English section, not just English classes, but a full school just as it does at the Villa Maria in Montreal. My paternal grandmother and my aunt were educated by Les Dames de la Congrégation at Bellevue and the Villa Maria. My brothers were to and did follow in their father’s footsteps at the Petit Séminaire de Québec. As I was about to start school Bellevue started closing down its English section. In 1953, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary started their Junior and High School on Mont Carmel street in Old Quebec, up behind the Château Frontenac. I was part of that first kindergarten class of 1953. It offered that something special that no other school in the City had, be they French or English language schools. It was small. It was international. The buildings were old homes. There was nothing institutional about the school. Space was not a luxury. We had a library in the attic. Reading was a very important part of the school culture as was penmanship, music, drama and ballet. The nuns went from one building to another in the dead of Winter wearing black woven wool shawls. We used the Institut Canadien for special recitals, the YWCA, on Sainte-Ursule, the church hall of the Chapelle du Sacré Coeur for our Christmas bazaars, recess was on the hill neighbouring the Citadel. The chapel was so tiny we took turns as the entire student body and faculty could not fit in. We would come together in the Spring for the May Day celebrations in the convent garden, which is now a City-owned park. The cannons that sit there were also there when I was a child. I received my first communion from the hands of none other than Mgr Alphonse-Marie Parent, that of the 1967 ‘Rapport Parent’ that would bring about the closing of Marymount College in Quebec City. He was that one constant witness of the presence of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary from their arrival to Quebec City, in 1943, to their departure in 1969. We learned to sing “O Canada” in French and in English. I learned “God Save the Queen” in Halifax, not Quebec City.

Regardless of the various languages heard in the halls and classrooms, Marymount College (as it became known when it opened in Ste-Foy) opened our eyes, our minds, our ears to a whole other world outside Quebec City, outside Canada. The nuns came from different parts of the world, as did the boarders. Even our ‘God’ was different in that He was a loving God and not the punishing, vindictive one of our surrounding culture.

My family lived on Fraser Street until I was eight years old. The book tells me I lived in “the Anglophone Montcalm enclave”. I see the building we lived in but I do not recognize the English names. I suppose I was hidden then too. We did, however, speak English and French on the street without fear. The fear would come with the advent of the FLQ in the mid-60s. Jean Lesage and Jean Beliveau were neighbours. In those days there was a curling club on the South West corner of Fraser Street and Parc. There was a Chinese laundry on Crémazie between de Bourlamaque and Cartier. My father was not into hockey and my parents’ Saturday evenings were ‘Poker Night’, the nickel and dime kind. The advent of television brought into my home The Jackie Gleason Show and Séraphin made his way in from radio as did Bishop Fulton Sheen. The Ed Sullivan Show took over our Sunday nights. I had my first haircut at the hair-dressing salon with Monsieur Adrien at Holt Renfrew on Buade Street. Holt Renfrew also had a children’s clothing department. Our school uniforms were bought there. My school’s annual fashion show events were held at the Château... And there was the Quebec Winter Club with its bar, its tennis and, I believe, squash courts, swimming pool, curling rink and dinning room. I learned to swim in the swimming pool that was once a part of the Palais Montcalm. Those were good and happy days for me.

Politically, in my family, it was not complicated. We voted Liberal period. Maurice Duplessis was in power. My grandfather despised the man. In those days politics was not language based. It was nonetheless very emotional—in colour too: the red Liberals and the blue Union Nationale. Those were simpler days. Duplessis’ death in 1959 would usher in a new era in Quebec politics that would alter its many faces.

I grew up in a bilingual home where religion and politics were never discussed—just like the University Club/Cercle Universitaire rule. We still don’t. When I came ‘home’ from boarding school in Halifax in June of 1966 I found I had a separatist brother, and a family emotionally torn by language. Ironically, it was my English-born brother who slapped my family’s English face. He is still a separatist and travels with a British passport... It was hell. I came back with two girlfriends from Halifax. One came for two-weeks holiday while the other and I attended Laval Summer School. My brother and his pals would let my friends speak English, while I was told to speak French only... For me there was not much fun to be had with them. I had no right to speak English outside my home anymore.

1960: Jean Lesage (Liberal) was elected Premier of Quebec, and John F. Kennedy (Democrat) was elected President of the United States. John Deifenbaker (Conservative) was Prime Minister of Canada and Harold MacMillan (Conservative) was Britain’s Prime Minister. Queen Elizabeth was and still is the Head of the Commonwealth. Charles de Gaulle was President of France. Fidel Castro was in power having overthrown the US-backed regime of General Batista. John XXIII was Pope. Marymount moved from its cramped quarters in the old city to a new building in suburban Ste-Foy, not Sillery as the book states. Now that we were all under one roof, we discovered the world of American politics, the passion of politics. We discovered baseball and the passion of the World Series. Before our first academic year ended in our new building we discovered the fear of the draft as the Bay of Pigs Invasion began to echo... Vietnam was a far-off land slowly making its way to that world map on our classroom wall. In November 1963 we witnessed our teachers mourning their gunned down Irish Catholic President. We grieved with them as violence entered our lives here in Quebec City.

The world started to change from Quebec’s FLQ bombs, Vietnam, draft dodging, Beatlemania, Trudeaumania, flower power, women’s lib, Vatican II that opened windows so wide, Motown, birth control, pot, LSD, Woodstock, closet doors swinging open, the metric system, radiation and chemotherapies for cancer, etc... all that and more coloured my French and English speaking world, right here in Quebec City. I heard about it, read about it and watched it all in English. It is all part of my history, a history, I was once told not too, too long ago, that it is irrelevant in Quebec’s history. My true face was best kept hidden.

I left Quebec City, hoping never to return, on the 3rd of October 1970—the early days of airline terrorism. As I headed out to Cape Town, South Africa via England and France, Canada was shot in the heart by Quebec. I was not here during Canada’s October Crisis of 1970. I would return to Canada and to Quebec City the following year. My friends were all gone. I made my way to Toronto for just a year only to discover that I missed the French factor: the men smoking on the streets, even in the cold of Winter as they walked bundled up but the hands in constant motion. The noisy, smoke-filled bars and restaurants. The French wines as opposed to Cold Duck. I settled in Montreal. I would return to Quebec two years later, just long enough to fill my bank account and head back to Halifax and four years of university. I returned once again to Quebec City at a time when teachers were not needed, nor were substitute teachers. I left again only to come back in 1988. I have been here since.

I was living in Quebec City when the PQ came to power in 1976. My family still has its scars.

I was studying at Laval University during that first 1980 referendum. I had two classes that left me bruised, battered and forever scarred.

I was also in Quebec City for the November 1995 referendum. By then I knew better than to get involved in any political discussion. Politics became my cue to leave the room or any party that turned into a drunken cry for “Vive le Québec Libre”. My boss, a liberal, had taken to calling me “ma maudite bloke”... it was easier to let it pass, to remain silent knowing that all around me were political enemies. I did not dare touch that boat... That would come later with a simple ‘No’. That ‘No’ also has its own story in a city where one is referred to Montreal for any kind of English information and support services.

I take offense to the bold headling on page 119 and the “Gallicisms in Quebec City English”. I know both Clive Meredith and Marianna O’Gallagher, both very respected members of the English speaking community of Quebec City. It is one thing to say those words, no doubt in mocking humour, and quite another to print in such a book. It is, in my view, not funny, not cute but rather patronizing and condescending. If the list that also appears on page 119 is truly part of our English language in Quebec City then perhaps our English schools need to take a good look at the quality of its teaching. I can’t relate to most of the words listed other than those that were introduced by our various ‘séparatist’ governments who seem to relish labelling the ‘pas de souche’ public. The ‘métis’ is part of Canadian history. The ‘tuque’, yes, is ours as is the absent ‘pousse-pousse’ of my childhood, and many of my English speaking peers. ‘Strollers’ entered our vocabulary with the advent of the folding umbrella strollers. That list appears to me to have its roots in French/English speaking bilingual homes, as opposed to that of English speaking homes. I do not see its relevance in such a book without a serious study to substantiate that vocabulary as being genuine and general in Quebec City’s English speaking community. In Quebec City, the English speaking people go to the ‘Shopping Centre’ not to a ‘mall’. We drink ‘soft drinks’, not ‘pop’… I find page 119 in Volume II to be utterly offensive and disparaging. As to “eh”, well that is Canadian English, not restricted to Quebec City’s English speaking people. More to come on that page's contents ...

Where is the grief for all that we have lost? Where is the grief for the language rights that are lost, it appears, forever? I miss reading about Owen Carter’s legacy along with that of Tony Price, though his family remains very well rooted here in Quebec City—we do have their beautiful Auberge St-Antoine of which there is no mention. I missed reading about Jo Ouellet’s French-English dictionary for tourists, or her hidden words puzzles. No mention of John Martin calling in, on a regular basis, to a certain morning talk show host, with his prominent English accent. So much left hidden and I wonder if any of it will ever be uncovered. I missed the story of St. George Elementary School on St-Cyrille and its Stobo Auditorium on Fraser Street—that private school for Protestant and Jewish children—as I missed the story of Bishop Mountain Hall, an asylum, Miss Rhodes kindergarten which is now the historic property know as "Bagatelle'. Kerhulu for tea, with no chocolate éclairs in the Summer months… I miss the story of the singing group from St. Lawrence College, The Quebeckers… I missed the story of why the Périscope theatre sits where I knew the Synagogue of my youth to be. I missed the story of all those beautifully polished brass memorial dedications mounted on the walls on the ground floor entrance of the now chronic care facility that once was the wonderful Jeffrey Hale Hospital. One does not see such memorials in the French hospitals and schools. Quebec City English history is on those walls and it is also in all our cemeteries… It may be Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish English, but nonetheless so very, very English and in Quebec City.

I find it is regrettable that the author of 'The Anglos...' did not grow up in this beautiful, but changed city. The book lacks the pathos of the loss that I think many English speaking people experienced during these turbulent times and which, for many, continues. It smacks of a kind of political correctness. I do not believe that the English speaking people of Quebec City are assimilated at all. The author has failed to find those many hidden, lost, gone, or dying English faces. Our echo can still be heard as it bounces off the cliffs of the North and South shores of the majestic Saint Lawrence River. I am not ‘pure laine’, I am an English speaking person born into a bilingual family, raised and living in Quebec City, the oldest of Canada’s provincial capital cities.

Sheelagh Grenon
Quebec City, December 26, 2005.

© Sheelagh Grenon 2005

1 comment:

tea4me said...

This article was published in the March 15th, 2006, edition of the Quebec Chronicle Telegraph. Ironically, it was the St. Patrick's Green edition...