In Montreal

August Kleinzahler

At the local fromagerie here in Montreal the other day my meagre store of French quickly exhausted itself, I think while discussing the desired thickness of the jambon about to be sliced. ‘S’il vous plait,’ I said meekly, ‘parlez-vous anglais?’ The proprietor, a tall, sturdily built man in his mid-fifties, gave me a gimlet-eyed, appraising look, then shrugged: ‘Where are you from?’ Had I said Toronto, I don’t know that he would have spat on the floor and thrown me out but I doubt he’d have continued in English. ‘Je viens de San Francisco,’ I said. And we were off to the races, discussing Quebec cheeses, charcuterie, what have you.

When I arrived here 39 years ago I would say: ‘Je viens de New Jersey.’ This too elicited an excellent response as Quebecers seemed to love nothing more than driving down to the malls in Paramus (Bergen County, my native domain) and shopping their heads off. In general, Quebecers seem to like Americans, in approximate measure to their dislike of Anglophone Canadians. In so far as no other nationality that immediately comes to mind ‘likes’ Americans (even the Irish seem to have gone off us during the George W. Bush era), I find being in Montreal again a most genial circumstance. ‘You must find yourself a French lover and learn the language on the pillow,’ the fromagier told me.

It is election season in Canada, as it was in Quebec the summer I arrived in 1976, in the middle of the Olympics, on a grant to improve my French at McGill, having just completed my teacher training out west in British Columbia. The provincial party then governing Quebec, the Liberals under the hopeless Robert Bourassa, was in terrible shape, not least from revelation after revelation of breathtaking corruption. The Montreal mob under Vito Rizzuto, in alliance with the Canadian Hells Angels, had their hands in everything, not least the pockets of senior provincial and federal politicians. There were so many bank robberies in the years I spent here – from the summer of 1976 to the early winter of 1979 – that the Montreal police initiated an order to ‘shoot to kill’ anyone caught trying to rob a bank. So many bank robbers were presently blasted into oblivion that it seemed for a while as if the shoot-to-kill order included those who were maybe toying with the notion of robbing a bank. The crazy Dubois Brothers from Saint-Henri, all nine of them, were using crowded nightclubs frequented by their ‘competition’ for target practice with automatic weapons. Quebec itself had only recently begun emerging from La Grande Noirceur, the great darkness of the Maurice Duplessis era with its reactionary politics.

It was in this atmosphere that the Parti Québécois led by René Lévesque swept into power in November 1976, on a platform of national sovereignty for Quebec and making French the official language, passing Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, in 1977. Over time the federal courts would modify Bill 101 but Quebec remains a French-speaking province. A referendum on separation from the rest of Canada was held in 1980 and soundly defeated.

The Parti Québécois was a mixed bag but Lévesque was the one of the most captivating and attractive politicians I have observed in my lifetime, matched only by his nemesis in the struggle for Quebec’s sovereignty, the Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Both men came from affluent families, both were educated at the most prestigious Jesuit schools. There the similarities ended. Lévesque – short, squirrely, animated, a chain-smoker who talked out the side of his mouth with a thick Quebec accent – had dropped out of law school, and enlisted as a war correspondent with the US army in Europe during the Second World War. He reported from London during the Blitz and was with the first unit of Americans to reach Dachau. He was later a a correspondent for the CBC’s French news service in Korea and hosted a CBC chat show from 1956-59.

Trudeau was patrician in bearing, the handsomest politician of his generation, something like a robust, athletic-looking Giscard d’Estaing. It would be difficult to exaggerate the degree of self-assurance, imperiousness, even hauteur, with which he presented himself to the public. Before he married Margaret Sinclair, 28 years his junior, he was regarded as one of the most eligible bachelors of the 1960s, courting starlets like Barbra Streisand. They made for an odd, if photogenic couple.

Trudeau and Levesque had a visceral dislike for one another from the start. A friend in common introduced them at a CBC lunch in the mid-1960s. After some ‘Socratic’ back and forth, Lévesque turned to Trudeau. ‘You’re a god-damned intellectual!’ he said with disgust, and stalked off.

Their animosity only blossomed over time and deliciously flavoured their debates over the future of Canada, the best political theatre I have ever witnessed: Trudeau, always measured, rational, immaculately if flamboyantly tailored, usually sporting a boutonnière, arguing for the federation; Lévesque the impassioned, rumpled, chain-smoking, plain-talking, Quebec-style common man, exhorting his followers to redress the historical wrongs inflicted on them, taking Trudeau to task for his Anglo middle name and his mother’s Scottish ancestry.

Everybody won. Quebec is still part of Canada but culturally and linguistically a separate entity, and a thriving one. Montreal, at least for four months a year, is one of the most beautiful and lively cities on earth.

With three months to go to the federal election, the left-leaning New Democratic Party, led by Thomas Mulcair, is ahead in the polls. (It has never formed a government before.) The slick, dismal Tory, Stephen Harper, who’s been in power for ever, is looking vulnerable. The candidate regarded as least likely to be prime minister is Pierre Trudeau’s son, Justin, at the top of the Liberal ticket. He has nothing on the old man, just the Trudeau name, money and his mother’s good looks.


  • 31 July 2015 at 10:17pm
    John-Albert says:
    All true and well said, the last point especially. We feel Justin Trudeau takes after his mother, a rather dizzy beauty, and not his father. The Liberals made a terrible mistake in choosing him as leader, and most thinking people in Canada are looking forward to a semi-left NDP ending all the worst policies of the right-wing Harper.

    • 1 August 2015 at 11:45pm
      Bob Beck says: @ John-Albert
      No doubt Margaret Trudeau sometimes came across as "dizzy"; but, it later emerged, she also suffered from bipolar disorder, something of which there was little public discussion and even less understanding in the 1970s. To my mind, that excuses at least some of her foolish behaviour in public: none of which, in any case, caused much harm to anyone or anything but her own, and her husband's, dignity.

  • 1 August 2015 at 1:40am
    Bob Beck says:
    Great post but -- being Canadian -- I have to quibble. By no means did Levesque speak English with a "thick Quebec accent." Bourassa, Claude Ryan, and several other Quebec politicians of the day did, but by comparison Levesque, for whatever reason, had only a trace of a Quebecois accent.

    For proof, you can watch the excellent National Film Board documentary on Levesque and Trudeau, "The Champions," on the NFB website: It was made in three installments of which the best, in my opinion, is the last, from 1987. It's the most inherently dramatic because it takes the story right through the 1980 referendum, to the end of both men's political careers.

    Quibble II: I very much doubt that buddy at the fromagerie would have thrown you out had you said you were from Toronto. I'm an Anglophone from Ontario, and in fact lived in Toronto for a time. Despite my poor to middling French, I've never encountered the slightest disdain, or even incivility, from Francophones in Quebec.

    Having grown up only three hours drive from Montreal, in the 70s and early 80s, I remember the wave of Montreal bank robberies. One crew, having boxed an armoured car into a blind alley, opened the back door of their own van to reveal an artillery piece pointed at the Brinks vehicle -- the occupants of which handed over the cash with alacrity.

    For a great fictional take on this particular crime wave (if a claustrophic and disturbing one), see the 1986 film "Pouvoir Intime," by Quebec director Yves Simoneau.

    • 1 August 2015 at 1:47am
      Bob Beck says: @ Bob Beck
      I've just realized -- in describing Levesque as "talking out of the side of his mouth," as well as speaking strongly accented English, you may have mixed him up with former Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Levesque might have talked out of the side of his mouth on those occasions he had a cigarette in it, but he was more often seen with a cigarette in his hand (the cartoonists would also place cigarettes behind his ears and the like).

      Chretien, so far as I know a non-smoker, did (and does) talk out of the side of his mouth all the time, reportedly because of a condition called Bell's palsy; and, it's said, mangles French as badly as he does English: even causing offence to Francophone audiences, on several occasions, with ill-chosen wording.

  • 9 August 2015 at 2:16pm
    Sam Allison says:
    An interesting discussion about Levesque and Montreal. I agree with one critic that there is very little rudeness towards English-speakers in shops and in everyday life although there is the odd "speak French, you're in Quebec" incident. Anti English discrimination is, on the whole, institutionalized within the Quebec Provincial apparatus which is quite literally 98% French.
    As for Levesque, I managed to question him twice. He was totally unable to take a polite but incisive question without losing his temper. Such is the uselessness of the Canadian media, politicians here are seldom subjected to sharp questions. Levesque spoke English in a rather earthy American style probably maintained from his days in the American army. Parizeau, a former Premier, also spoke an affected English, using a bizarre "Jeeves and Wooster" accent--phrases such as "By Jove" were seldom if ever used in the LSE where he went but were rather acquired from his English nanny (he comes from the Francostocracy that rules the Province).
    As for Levesque's claims to be righting historical wrongs, most of these are, in fact, imaginary claims. For example, Levesque labelled Anglophones as "Westmount Rhodesians" when, in fact, very few Anglos lived high on Mount Royal in this expensive neighbourhood. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Anglos worked in factories, built the railways, bridges, and canals, or cleared land throughout the Province.One of the ridiculous perspectives pushed by Levesque and believed by trendy intellectuals is that capital is English and labour is French in Quebec. Levesque looked good only because his words and ideas were seldom challenged at the time that he said them.

    • 12 August 2015 at 4:45am
      jrgiguere says: @ Sam Allison
      Parizeau may have had an english nanny but he got his doctorate at the London School of Economics, one of the first if not the first Canadian to do so. When he came back, he was offered a job at the Bank of Canada, As translator for people who had only a bachelor degree. He still remained a federalist for some years...
      Lévesque didn't coined the "Westmount Rhodesians" quiop. It was Canada's firts Official Languages Commissioner, Keith Spicer.

    • 12 August 2015 at 1:19pm
      Bob Beck says: @ jrgiguere
      Speaking of which -- and of the shopkeeper's advice to August Kleinzahler to find a French-speaking lover -- a later such Commissioner (Max Yalden?) once advised his fellow Anglophones that the best way to learn French was in bed.

      He later married a Swiss woman; whether her first language was French, I never heard.

      Some Trudeau-era public servants (not yet denigrated by their political masters as "bureaucrats") had a certain flair. In the long hangover after the Harper *noirceur* (a hangover which, for once, I hope begins sooner rather than later), we can look forward, absent a thorough stable-cleaning by whoever takes over, to administration by joyless, moralistic bean-counters.

  • 11 August 2015 at 10:01pm
    Fed Kellner says:
    The relationship between Anglophones and Francophones in my lovely Montréal is as complex as any other inter-ethnic reality.
    I remember meeting up with American professors at the Université de Montréeal (the largest French University in Canada). They were having a good laugh (though not derisively) at their Francophone colleagues who would often attack English Canada and the Anglophones, but if the Americans piped in with negative comments or attacks on English Canadians, the French Canadian colleagues would immediately jump to the defence of the Anglophones. . . . should we say it was a kind of family protection, i.e., I get to attack my cousin Bob, you don't!!
    I love this memory so much! both enjoyable and rather insightful as well! lol. F. Kellner

    • 12 August 2015 at 3:11am
      Bob Beck says: @ Fed Kellner
      Somehow, I'm not exactly surprised by that kind of thing: typical of the unexpected complexities, even ironies, of inter-ethnic relations, in whatever country.

      Someone (maybe John Ralston Saul) pointed out that it was amusing in Canada to end up with people berating each other as "English" or "French" bastards, respectively, when most of their ancestors had been neither -- Scots, Irish, Bretons, Normans and so on.

    • 12 August 2015 at 10:56am
      Colman Hogan says: @ Fed Kellner
      When it comes to Anglo-Francophone relations, I am reminded of a witticism first heard in France in the 80s. 'Canada: what breath-taking beauties, what genial possibilities, what an ironic denouement. A country that promised French culture, British politics and American know-how, but instead ended up with American culture, French politics and British know-how.’

    • 12 August 2015 at 2:17pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Colman Hogan
      Recalls the one about the differences between heaven (Italian chefs, German engineers, British police... add national stereotypes to taste) and hell (British chefs, Italian engineers, German police...).

  • 25 August 2015 at 5:05pm
    Anakana Schofield says:
    That's a mad exaggeration on any suggestion of throwing you out if from Toronto. Nothing that exciting is possible in Canada I'm afraid. The best I've had is an angry grandpa gardener threaten me with his garden hose and insist no one would marry me. (He may have had a point there). But to console you I love Americans in 3 languages.

    Ah the 1970's when one could receive a grant to improve one's french.

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