Two young Québécois once asked me what it was like to live as a linguistic minority for someone who was born and raised in French, but has been living in B.C. for a long time. The West Coast’s charms had likely made them consider the prospect, just as they had for me nearly 30 years before, after several visits and a few years working in Alberta. The two visitors also wondered how the Francophone community of Greater Vancouver was doing.
Already keen to speak my mother tongue, I really should have been able to answer, having wondered about this for quite some time now. People familiar with my straight talk will be surprised to find that I avoided the question and quickly moved on to a lighter topic on that beautiful spring day while mogul skiing on Whistler Mountain. Firstly, I did not think they were ready to hear my answer and neither was I ready to share it. What I left unsaid sufficed that morning but was going to haunt me, as the question was totally fair.
Yes, I could have answered in terms of our services in French, our schools and kindergartens, our theatre and arts scene, our media, our small Francophone gatherings and finally about the wonderful support of our francophile friends. I could have used the language of our spokespeople who aspire to live entirely in French; as if it could be desirable to enclose oneself in a language ghetto, like certain parts of Montreal’s West Island not that long ago.
No, I did not want to warn them about the difficulties of living as a Francophone when most friends, colleagues and neighbours live almost exclusively in English or can barely mumble that other official language. Neither did I want to talk about the language preferred by the younger generation, entrepreneurs, creators and newly-arrived Francophones, all keen to quickly master the English language, aside from a few exceptions capable of maintaining themselves as expats, with little local linkage. It’s also very difficult to speak of a community in a metropolis when the cost of living, urban sprawl, individualism, institutionalization, marginal demography and the broad diversity of our language or cultural roots can all be alienating elements. Oh, and I forgot to mention the little breathing room available for Francophone economic activity. It should come as no surprise that our public Francophone spaces are not well-utilized and investing oneself in them is so difficult. Because of all of the above, the private Francophone sphere becomes very precious, the experience so personal, in order to keep oneself sane, which is what I was doing that morning.
In retrospect, is the glass half empty or half full? Or is there even a glass to compare when the comparison grid of the majority environment for which we are conditioned is so different in a minority environment? The experience remains precious and difficult to share, if not to properly appreciate.
Should I have mentioned that these two visitors dressed like everyone else were actually members of the Canadian moguls ski team in training, as I found out when getting off the ski lift? One was Alexandre Bilodeau, whom I did not recognize under his headgear – the one who repeated his gold medal achievement two years later in Sochi. The following day, Canada found itself at the top of the medals table, thanks to Québécois athletes. By chance that evening, I was attending the Rendez-Vous du Cinéma in a wonderful auditorium for a double show of nostalgia: Il était une fois les Boys and Yukon parle français. Unfortunately, too few attendees showed up, in spite of the Herculean effort, perseverance and courage of Lorraine Fortin and Régis Painchaud, the organizers of the film event, working with love and devotion year after year, without receiving a medal. In order not to go mad, I had to draw from a “country-alt”* Québécois source in order to finally answer the question originally asked by my visitors. They would likely not have understood, however, even though we share the same language. Anyhow, enjoy your own surprise rendez-vous in March!
* “When love triumphs, one must make noise, I crank my chainsaw to carve the words that I wish to offer you,” Tire le coyote, Chainsaw (2012)