“The English are waking up”
Tuesday 4th September
It was meant to be a night of celebration. The Parti Québécois (PQ) had been declared the winner of the provincial elections and its leader Pauline Marois was giving a victory speech to cheering, flag-waving supporters in Montreal’s Métropolis theatre.
Shortly before midnight the first female premier of Quebec was rushed offstage. The crowd was asked to remain calm; technical difficulties were causing unexpected delays. A second announcement was made: a blank had been fired and there was no need to worry. After a nervy intermission, Marois returned to the stage to thank her supporters on a historic day for the Québécois people, the French-speaking inhabitants of Quebec, the only Canadian province where English isn’t an official language. The building was then promptly evacuated.
“There was speculation that Bain’s aim had been to assassinate Marois – who in 2007
proposed a bill that required immigrants to learn French”
Wearing a blue bathrobe and carrying a Luger pistol and a semi-automatic rifle, Richard Henry Bain had walked up to the back entrance of the theatre. He had opened fire: but these were no blanks. He killed Denis Blanchette, a 48-year-old lighting technician, and critically wounded another man with the same bullet. “The English are waking up,” he said in French as he was dragged into a police car. “The English are waking up. It’s payback.”
The two solitudes
The Montreal Gazette spoke to acquaintances of Bain who confirmed he was obsessed with politics but said that nothing in his behaviour suggested he would turn violent. We learned that he was a devout Christian who claimed he had received a message from God saying that Montreal needed to separate from the rest of Quebec in order to achieve harmony between anglophones and francophones. Other details also emerged: he’d recently splurged at a charity auction on a VIP package in Vegas, which included a meeting with his icon, Québécois superstar Celine Dion.
The New York Times suggested, reasonably enough, that the shooting “appeared to be related to the gunman’s dissatisfaction with laws requiring the use of French in Quebec”. There was speculation that Bain’s aim had been to assassinate Marois – who in 2007 proposed a bill that required immigrants to learn French in order to obtain certain rights, including citizenship, and ran her 2012 election campaign on a promise to expand the province’s language laws.
Until the night of 4th September, political violence had been virtually unheard of in Quebec since the October Crisis of 1970, when the Front de libération du Québec, a left-wing militant separatist organisation, kidnapped two officials, including the deputy premier, who they later killed. The events alienated many separatists and a groundswell of support for independence through peaceful means led to the rise of the Parti Québécois.
Despite the rarity of actual violence, however, there’s an undercurrent of misunderstanding between anglophones and francophones in Quebec. The relationship between the two communities is often referred to as the “Two Solitudes”, a phrase first used in a 1945 novel by Hugh MacLennan about the tensions between English and French Canada.
A regular series of skirmishes keeps the tension bubbling. A video of a francophone aggressively berating people on the street for speaking English recently went viral on YouTube; a sign was put up in the window of the ticket booth at Villa Maria metro station asking customers not to use English (“Au Quebec, c’est en Français que ça se passe”); and just the day after Bain’s attack, a man in Montreal had a tomato sandwich thrown in his face by a woman apparently incensed to hear him speaking English in public. Given his severe tomato allergy he considered himself lucky the attack took place in a hospital.
There’s a strong cultural divide between anglophones and francophones in Montreal too. Steve Faguy, a Montreal journalist who in the aftermath of the shooting published a column with alternate paragraphs in English and French in which he pleaded for calm, refers to the case of Marie-Mai, a finalist on ‘Star Académie’ who went on to become one of Quebec’s biggest stars. L’actualité magazine reported that three-quarters of anglophones living in Montreal had never heard of her. “Most Anglos watch no French TV,” says Faguy. “They have absolutely no idea who the French celebrities are.”
Montreal is geographically divided as well, with Boulevard Saint-Laurent separating the two sides. The anglophones, broadly speaking, live to its west, the francophones to its east, and immigrants somewhere in the middle. While the city is more mixed than it used to be, the West Island still has an anglophone majority and in the eastern suburbs you’ll hear little English. Downtown Montreal has a French appearance due to the shopfronts, billboards and street signs in French (a legal requirement policed by inspectors who make sure businesses adhere to the language laws). But throughout its old financial district you’ll find scores of English language ‘ghost signs’, faded advertisements hand-painted onto walls. They’re a reminder that anglophones once dominated business and commerce in this city.
The anglo supremacy swiftly declined in the years following the first election victory in 1976 of the Parti Québécois. In 1977, the government enacted Bill 101, making French the sole official language of the province and effectively rendering English a foreign language. French became the language of the courts and the legislature, of health services and social services, of government departments and providers of public utilities. Restaurant menus, shop signs and posters for commercial goods were required to have French in an equal or larger font than English. Most controversially, the law stated that the children of Francophone families and new immigrants (unless they were native anglophones) were only eligible for state education if they went to French-speaking primary and secondary schools.
This came as a shock for the province’s large anglophone minority and over the subsequent decade more than 100,000 English speakers moved elsewhere in Canada. But the vast majority of English-speakers resisted ‘anglo flight’, stayed in Montreal and adapted to a new reality. Today, approximately 70 percent of native English speakers in Montreal are bilingual and it’s difficult to find a good job without being fluent in French.
Many anglophones believe Bill 101 to be discriminatory. Yet opponents of the bill also recognise that it has been good for those Quebecers who want to remain Canadian. “Anglos realise it’s a compromise,” says Henry Aubin, a columnist at the Montreal Gazette. “You have to make francophones feel secure and so you have to give linguistic primacy to the French. It’s a sacrifice but the benefits are great because it reduces anger against Canada and it reduces separatism.” It’s ironic that a law designed to boost Québécois identity has been bad for the separatist movement. But if Quebec is largely autonomous and French culture is thriving, why take a huge risk and leave a prosperous country? A La Presse poll carried out in the week before the election revealed that despite the PQ performing well at the polls, only 28 percent of voters in Quebec want independence.
“In 1977, the government enacted Bill 101, making French the sole official language of the province and effectively making English a foreign language”
There has been a huge swing towards federalism over the past two decades. At the second referendum for independence in October 1995 (a 1980 referendum was easily won by the ‘No’ campaign), the province came within a few thousand votes of leaving Canada: 50.5 percent for ‘No’, 49.5 percent for ‘Yes’. Hundreds of thousands of Quebecers who considered themselves Canadian – a group that is by no means confined to English speakers – nearly had to choose between their homes and their country. On that day, 65 percent of francophones voted for secession.
“On a scale of one to ten, I’d say the tension now is about two or three, even in the aftermath of the shooting,” says Aubin. “In 1976 when the PQ were first elected it was ten, easily. Which means that around the time of the second referendum, it was probably closer to 11.”
The baby gap
Separatists view 1995 as the ultimate missed opportunity; never again will the political landscape be more ideal for establishing an independent Quebec. Pauline Marois’s victory in this year’s elections is a boost, but she leads a minority government and is unlikely to be able to force a referendum. Separatists are also coming to terms with a serious long-term concern – the decline of the francophone population.
Demographer Michel Paillé lives in Quebec City, a town where 95 percent of residents speak French as a first language. Quebec City, like most of the province, is safe from anglicisation, but Montreal, he believes, is under threat. “What is troubling is that all the trends suggest Montreal will become increasingly less French,” he says. “Fertility rates are lower for francophones than for other groups, and it is mainly French speakers who are moving out of Montreal to the suburbs.” In the province of Quebec, 85 percent of people speak French as a first language. On the island of Montreal, however, it’s only 50 percent.
Fertility rates in Quebec were once the highest in North America. But between 1960 and 1966, a period known as the Quiet Revolution, this rural, traditionalist region of Canada went through a process of rapid modernisation. The power of the Catholic church was reduced and local government was strengthened. Dozens of new schools and universities opened. Conservative social attitudes were replaced by a spirit of liberalism.
This intellectual awakening and destruction of the old order was empowering to the French speakers of Canada, keen to shrug off an inferiority complex formed over centuries. Under the rule of the British Empire, the Québécois spoke the wrong language and went to the wrong churches, and were accordingly excluded from jobs outside of farming and menial work. The Quiet Revolution made Quebec ambitious and proud, but the decline of the Catholic church had an unforeseen consequence: people stopped having large families.
“The major problem is that our fertility rates are too low,” says Paillé. “There’s a book called ‘The Reconquest of Montreal’ by Marc Levine, an American academic who believed that the French conquest of Montreal in the 1960s and 1970s is reversible and it’ll turn English again. I’m inclined to agree with him.”
Marois’s PQ predecessors sought to assure long-term French dominance in the province by using language laws to turn the children of immigrants into francophones. But there’s a problem the laws can’t fix. Parents want their children to be competitive in a global workplace, and so Quebec is losing out on immigrants who choose to move to Canadian provinces where children can be educated in English.
The debate over language laws continues to dominate the headlines in the local press. After Marois’s election victory her party announced that they planned to extend Bill 101 so that daycare centres for young children were also required to operate in French. The PQ also faces a backlash over plans to force all companies with more than 50 employees to communicate internally only in French. However for all the squabbles over linguistic territory, Richard Henry Bain’s claim that the English are “waking up” has not come true, and seems unlikely to do so: or at least not in the violent, immediate way he seems to have envisaged.
Monday 1st October
A concert to raise money for Amy, the four-year old daughter of Denis Blanchette, brings another large crowd to the Métropolis theatre. Céline Dion, who may or may not know she once posed for photos with the killer, appears onstage to sing ‘L’Amour Existe Encore’. Images of Denis Blanchette smiling and hugging Amy have the audience in tears. Many wear badges saying a single word in capital letters: “Courage”. Proceeds from the sale of the badges will go to Dave Courage, the man hit by the same bullet that killed Blanchette, who is still in a bad way in hospital.
On the spot where Pauline Marois heralded a historic day for Quebec before shots were fired, Win Butler of the Arcade Fire introduces his band’s best-known song: “It is time to reclaim this venue as a place for music, not violence,” he says. “We are together, not separate.” The Arcade Fire strike up the rousing opening of “Wake Up” and everybody in the venue sings along. Richard Henry Bain’s chilling final words as a free man have been subverted: the two solitudes have been briefly bridged.
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