I was in Toronto last weekend, my first visit there in many years, to perform in a stand-up comedy competition. To accommodate an all-anglo audience, I had to abandon some of my repertoire, jokes only a Quebecer would truly appreciate. Fortunately, it was easy to fill the gaps with Rob Ford jokes. You know, the mayor of Toronto who reads briefing documents as he drives down the highway because he’s too busy — and who refuses to use a driver because he’s too cheap.
I’d use the Ford jokes in Montreal, too, but I’m afraid that a lot of Quebecers, anglo or franco, wouldn’t even recognize the clown prince of Canada’s largest city. After all, when l’Actualité magazine conducted a survey last spring, author Jean-François Lisée said he was shocked to discover that 85 per cent of anglos didn’t recognize the clown prince of Quebec City, Régis Labeaume. Hey, few of us know the mayors of any city! I bet you only only a quarter of the residents of Dollard-des-Ormeaux can name their mayor. I’m not bragging here — I’m just saying that we don’t tend to turn our politicians into cult heroes unless their name ends in Trudeau.
Anyway, after the comedy performance, I had several conversations about why I didn’t perform more often in Ontario. After all, the comedic opportunities are much greater in Toronto than in Montreal, whose English-speaking population is the size of Halifax. I hadn’t really given the question much thought before, to tell you the truth. But the answer came easily:
Because I’m a Quebecer.
* * *
Through no choice of my own, I was born and raised in Quebec. And as soon as I could, I left.
It was shortly after the first election of the Parti Québécois. At 17 years of age, my French was pretty much limited to telling Canadian Tire customers “pas de stock” or “ce n’est pas mon département.” English-speaking Quebecers had treated French as a foreign language until then, so I knew I was ill-equipped for the PQ’s Quebec. Seeing the écriture sur le mur, I moved to Toronto.
I might still be living there today were it not for an elderly woman who one day walked into the tiny Yonge St. hardware store where I had found employment. The primly attired woman wanted a box of TSP, a common cleaning powder. I grabbed a box off the shelf and handed it to her. She stood there, staring at the rectangular box, flipping it from front to back several times.
“It’s in French,” she said, finally. I took the box and showed her the side panel, where the English instructions were located. She looked at the box but refused to take it. She began to shake, her face shrinking as she testily asked, “Why do they have to bother with French in the first place?”
Too young to recognize a rhetorical question, I naively responded that there were “French people in this country, too.” Seventeen years in Quebec had at least taught me that.
The answer made her even angrier. “Well, if they don’t like it here,” she blustered, “they should go back to France. Where they came from,” she helpfully added.
It was my turn to be shocked. And my turn to be rude. “You don’t look like no fucking Indian to me, lady. Why don’t you go back to where you came from?”
She left without the TSP.
When my boss returned from lunch, I explained what had happened. He thanked me for telling him, and, sure enough, the customer called to complain later that afternoon. My boss waved me over as he spoke to the woman. “My clerk thought you were being racist, and I agree with him,” he told her. “I’m sorry if we lost your patronage.” Then he hung up.
* * *
That was the day I became a Quebecer by choice. I concluded that my own attitude had been just as closed as the Yonge St. matron, living all of my life in Quebec without ever having made a serious effort to speak the language used by 80 per cent of the population. Within weeks, I had quit my job, moved back to Montreal and re-enrolled in school.
Within five years, I was elected to the executive of the Quebec student movement. A decade later, I was editing a bilingual community newspaper, living with a francophone, watching Taquinons la Planète and complaining about having to “passer la balayeuse.”
That’s my story, but it’s just one of a million that describe the efforts of non-francophones to make Quebec their home. We don’t do it because we have to. We do it because we choose to. ■
Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear at least once a week in this space. You can follow him on Twitter or find out about his upcoming stand-up performances here.
* Here’s the Ford joke. “I’m jealous of Toronto comics. Your mayor, Rob Ford, practically writes your jokes for you. Wait a second, was that what he was doing as he sped down the Gardiner last week?”