Dear Hong Kong: A Letter from Montreal

The following essay appears in the April 2010 issue of Muse, a Hong Kong arts and culture magazine. The same issue also contains my feature-length profile on Hong Kong’s “tree professor,” Jim Chi-yung. The magazine can be found at major bookstores throughout the city.

In my neighbourhood, I know exactly what language to speak. At Jean-Coutu (the drugstore), Nouveau Palais (the corner diner) and Première Moisson (the upscale bakery), it’s French. At Zoubris (the copy shop), Cheskie (the Jewish bakery) and Club Social (the Italian café), it’s English.

But in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, on the other side of town, I’m lost. I know the neighbourhood is mostly English-speaking, but I don’t want to offend anyone. So before walking into the clothing store, I decide to take the safe route and speak French. Turns out it was the right decision. The owner was francophone.

Nothing is simple when it comes to language in Montreal. The city’s history has made it one of the most linguistically contested places in the world, but far from being a hindrance, it gives it the kind of powerful creative charge that can only come from cultural friction.

Founded as a fur-trading outpost by the French nearly 400 years ago, Montreal was conquered by the British in 1760, along with the rest of France’s colonies in North America. Over the next two centuries, as successive waves of migrants settled in the city from Britain, Ireland, Eastern Europe, Italy and the Quebec countryside, Montreal became Canada’s industrial, commercial and cultural metropolis. It was a bilingual city, but in a very colonial sense, with French often serving as little more than an exotic backdrop to English, the language of money and influence. Different language and ethnic groups were reluctant to mix; as the cliché goes, it was a city of solitudes.

That changed in the 1960s with the rise of Quebec nationalism. Montreal, with its face of English capitalism and disenfranchised francophone majority, was a particular target of attack. Radicals lobbed bombs and robbed banks to fund their revolutionary goals. More civic-minded people marched on the street, demanded independence from Canada and called for laws to protect the status of French. In 1976, a pro-sovereignty party was elected and made its first act a wide-ranging law that established French as the only official language of Quebec and required the children of all immigrants to attend French schools.

Questions of language have preoccupied Montreal ever since. Something as straightforward as greeting a stranger in a shop or the street can be construed as a political act. People in Montreal don’t engage strangers in conversation as readily as in other North American cities, maybe because nobody is quite sure which language to speak. In theory, everyone could just speak French in public — that’s something that linguistic nationalists would certainly prefer — but reality is a bit messier.

Today’s Montreal is a city with few clear contrasts and many shades of grey. Someone I once knew compared it to Jerusalem, where he studied for four years, not necessarily because of the physical separation between different ethnic and linguistic groups, but because they are both cities subject to competing claims of language, nationality and identity. Montreal is a French city, but it’s also an English city; being a bilingual Montrealer is to live in different dimensions at once, to navigate between overlapping cities.

There’s no greater evidence of this than in the city’s toponymy. Few places have just one name. Avenue des Pins is also known as Pine Avenue. Dorchester Square is more commonly referred to by its previous name, Dominion Square. The hilly region southeast of the city is alternately known as the Eastern Townships, the Cantons de l’Est and Estrie. Many more names reflect Montreal’s hybrid identity — a kind of civic métissage, as you would say in French: Rue City-Councillors, chemin Queen-Mary, Saint-Louis-du-Mile-End and of course, la Main, which is a French translation of “the Main,” a colloquial term for the boulevard Saint-Laurent, also known as St. Lawrence Boulevard.

According to the latest census, Montreal’s linguistic mix is getting ever more complicated: less than half of the city’s population is made up of native French speakers, yet 60 percent speak French at home. Thanks to immigration, one-fifth of the population is trilingual, since many Montrealers speak their ancestral language in addition to French and English. Code-switching is as common a part of Montreal culture as steamed hot dogs, hockey and bad driving. I once heard the following exchange between two young friends walking on a downtown street after dark:

“On mange où?”


“Then let’s just go to the place around the corner.”

The translator Sherry Simon writes that Montreal is “a city of competing differences,” with no clear distinction between foreigners and natives, a place defined by its in-betweenness and lack of resolution. Creatively, this is actually quite refreshing — it gives you a chance to fly between the cracks of accepted realities. Caught between tongues, you begin to realize there’s always a different way to say — and see — something.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday April 22 2010at 12:04 am , filed under Canada, History, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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