Living in Quebec, you are not exposed nearly so much to the incessant barrage of American culture most English Canadians mistake for our culture.
Quebec has its own culture, its own movie and TV industry, its own carefully cultivated and celebrated stars. Maybe because it is so not American, it is all very, well, Canadian.
There is no place in the world quite like it. You don’t realize that until you’ve lived there for a while. Because it is so unique, Quebec makes the rest of us unique, too. Without Quebec, we are not much more than the place where they rebroadcast American TV shows.
My wife Kathy and I moved into a lovely terrace house on Marlowe Avenue in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce(NDG) near the border with Westmount, the last remaining truly English enclave in Montreal (they even have their own police; unarmed, and no one is really certain what they do, not even the police themselves).
When I used to go to Montreal to work in the 1970s, there were a lot of angry Québécois around. I once interviewed the well-known Montreal journalist Nick Auf der Maur at the Winston Churchill Pub, and the patrons at the next table began to yell at him for speaking English. Nick told them where to go (in French), but it was a vivid illustration of how high temperatures were running.
By the time I lived in the city, all that had changed. Everyone spoke at least two languages. I was always amazed at how easily young people in particular could switch from French to English, sometimes in mid-sentence–Franglais. No one seemed too worried–and certainly not angry–about who spoke what.
Still, I was excited to be at ground zero where the endless sovereignty drama played out. I relished the clash of wills I would witness–except I couldn’t even get a conversation started on the subject. No one was interested in talking about separation, let alone actually doing it. Everyone seemed far too happy and content with life to start a revolution.
You have to be pretty angry and unhappy with the way you’re being treated in order to sustain the fight that breaks you away from the country you’ve been part of for the past one hundred and forty-five years. I’ve encountered more anger in Campbell River, B.C. than I ever encountered in Quebec.
I took French lessons twice a week from a wonderful woman named Madeleine, whose brother, a successful academic, could not speak English and refused to have anything to do with the language. Mornings, I went running with our hound dog, Clinton, on Mount Royal, and met the sort of fascinating people you cherish as friends, and to whom we remain connected to this day.
Jean Charest, who by now had been elected the Liberal premier–I took no credit for the fact that as soon as I moved to Quebec the Separatists went down to defeat–lived around the corner. Occasionally, I would see him standing on the curb waiting for his driver to pick him up. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney lived in a big stone house down the street. Terence McKenna, the CBC producer-reporter, was a nearby neighbour. Leila Basen, who created CBC Television’s Heartland, lived up the street.
As big a city as Montreal was, it still somehow felt like a small, island town. You could get anywhere in a few minutes, even though everyone grumbled about the traffic. On weekends, we would drive over the mountain for great lunches on the Plateau. I walked along St. Urbain Street, thrilled to be in the place made famous by Mordecai Richler, marveling at the way Montreal, unlike Toronto, managed to hang onto myth and history, and continually weave both into the life and culture of the city.
What’s more, wherever you went in Quebec, whether it was down into the Old Town around Place Jacques Cartier or up into the far reaches of the Charlevoix and the Gaspé, or off to Quebec City for an annual visit, you could always find a good meal. Quebecers, bless their hearts, refuse to eat badly (okay, they do insist on poutine, but that’s a forgivable culinary failure stacked against everything else).
I loved the Quebec winters. I loved running with Clinton on Mount Royal at six o’clock on a snowy morning, coming up to the top of the mountain, the city and the Fleuve St- Laurent (St. Lawrence River to you Anglais), draped in snow, and spread out below us. For the first time in my life I felt a real a sense of the history of this country–from up on Mount Royal you could literally look down on where it all started.
Everyone complained about snow removal (even more than the traffic) but on our street, at least, it no sooner fell than an army of snow plows and trucks appeared to whisk it away. It was the most amazing thing to watch these snow removal operations at night, accompanied by a swirling light show and wailing sirens (warning drivers to get their parked cars off the street).
I felt at home in Quebec, a real sense of being part of something quite different, even though I was very much an outsider. Not that anyone ever made me feel uncomfortable or punctured my illusions–except to express sorrow at all the time I had wasted in that grim place to the east called Toronto, where the poor people were forced to live for work rather than, as was the case in Montreal, working in order to get on with the real business of living. We would stay here forever, I happily thought.
Then one day my wife came home and said it was all over. Her company was moving us back to Toronto. I started to cry and carry on and stamp my feet. I wasn’t moving. No way. “Je suis Québécois,” I kept yelling. “J’adore Montréal! Ne touchez pas ma ville!” My wife just smiled. And started packing.
They must have drugged me, because the next thing I knew I had regained consciousness and found myself living in Milton, Ontario.
In my secret heart of hearts, I still long for Montreal. I know that this week, for the first time in nine years, the Parti Québécois is back in power, now led by Pauline Marois. I resist the urge to think it happened because I moved out of the province and took my eye off the ball.
But if you want my opinion, I don’t think Quebec will leave the rest of us. My next door neighbour on Marlowe Avenue, who has lived in Montreal all his life, used to laugh at the notion. They will talk and talk, he used to say. But no one will actually do anything.
I hope he is right. We would not be nearly the same country without Quebec.
Meantime, I am being held prisoner in Milton, Ontario. I’m hoping Pauline Marois will read this and send a rescue party for one of her (not quite) native sons. I’m ready to come home.