Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Sign/Language

A friend of mine is in the Master's degree program at Concordia in Print. She's working on street art, graffitti, things like that. One of her projects is to put posters all over town and see how what happens to them. She's interested in how the physical and human elements of the city interact with public art like that.

The poster she has been putting up this last week is a reaction to Bush's victory in the U.S. election. It says "EAT ME" in large red letters on top of an angry (and quite striking) graphic. She's a talented artist, though I question her conceptual approach at times. Anyways, she was putting up some of these posters just off of St. Laurent and a middle-aged man approached her. He spoke to her harshly in french. She could understand him enough to know that he was having a problem with the english words on her sign.

She's from Vancouver and has only lived in Montreal since the beginning of the semester a couple months ago and then for about a year before that. She had never heard of Bill 101 (the infamous Québec law that mandated that all signs had to be in French and that any english had to be in a significantly smaller size; there are language police who go around with rulers enforcing this law). She took Level 1 of the same government french program that I'm currently taking (as a matter of fact, she's the one who told me about the program) and has just started level 2. Her french is not great, but she's really making an effort, going to class 4 hours a night after a full day at school.

She argued with this guy that her poster had nothing to do with language. That it was a political protest against the Bush government. They ended up having a long conversation (that I think she really didn't want to have). He lightened up a bit when she told him she was taking french. He did, though, complain about all these students coming to Montréal, enjoying the culture and the life without having any idea of the traditions, history and struggle behind it.

Though cranky (and possibly perverted—she's fairly attractive) men complaining about language issues is annoying, I understand his position and kind of agree with him. There are some cranky Québecois around, especially older men, and their resentment, though perhaps well-founded, is not very helpful. But there are a lot of young anglos here who come to go to school. And they realy are amazingly ignorant. It's a truism that college students are ignorant (and think of themselves as well-informed), so you can give them some leeway. But it's the lack of will that I think really infuriates a lot of francophones. They speak only english, stay west of St. Laurent and drink Molson or worse Heinekin.

The issue of language is very high on most francophones minds here, I believe. I have another friend who took her French-Canadian boyfriend to her Y downtown. He was quite angry that in the changing room, it was all english. You can't be putting a political poster up without addressing it. It'd be like making some statement about gay marriage in a native reserve. It's offensive to the people here because it's ignoring a political fight that they have been waging for centuries, while taking a political position.

On the other hand, if you are unaware of the depth of history and feeling that the Québecois have, then it seems like they are just really sensitive and picky. But that's always that way the one with power feels. It's very similar to the feelings most Canadians have about the states. We're hyper-sensitive to their every move and when we complain, they are surprised and indignant. If you're going to come to Québec, you really should treat the language issue with weight and respect.

This posting is not necessarily directed at anglos from Montréal, because they have their own brand of resentment and can make a case for having been badly treated themselves. It's more for the happy-go-lucky Canadians from the west who have no idea what their getting into out here!

1 comment:

Lantzvillager said...

I agree that language issues should be treated with respect and nowhere more so than in Quebec. I also think that when one is in a minority of any kind you have a right to be cranky about the wider world. There is not much in this world of which I am a minority and I am still pretty pissed off about a lot of things (can you dig it, Olman).

I'm still on the fence about the language issue as described here but I think that the Quebecois go overboard sometimes.