In the Crossfire: Being Bilingual in Quebec

When I was five years old, my parents placed me in an English school. I was the only French-Canadian in my kindergarten class but nobody seemed to notice that tiny discrepancy because lucky for me, I learned English really quickly and had no French accent. Basically, I fit right in and nobody asked me what I was doing in an English school.

At home, we spoke French without question because my father insisted on it. At school, my brother and I could speak as much English as we wanted to but at home, it was French. The older I got, the more I became aware of the huge amount of hatred that existed between the English and the French in my surroundings. At school all I heard were jokes about the “stupid Frenchies” or “Poutine heads” or “froggies”. When I was with my French friends outside of school, all I heard were insults about the English, who were the “square heads”, the “colonists”, the “spoon up the butts”, and the “Queen lovers”. The insults never stopped.

Throughout primary school, I became accustomed to being in the crossfire of two opposing camps. When a French friend would insult my English friend, I would raise my hand, step forward, and launch into my own variation of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech, which usually began with the words, “We’re all friends here, right? Why are we fighting?” It became evident quickly that I was going to be stuck in the middle of this language war for a lifetime to come, unless I decided to move to another part of the world, which some English friends eventually did. I lost my best friend at eight years old, Pamela, when her parents decided they had had enough of the language discrimination. They re-located to Ontario where Pamela still lives today with her husband and children.

In high school, I witnessed terrible fights between my English school and the French high school next door to us. During lunchtime, it was common to see boys punching each other, throwing each other into walls, beating each other with sticks or baseball bats, and even pulling knives out and stabbing one another. Police cars were a regular scene during these teenage years, and I became aware that I could no longer just raise my hand and give my eloquent peace speech, “We’re all friends here, right? Why are we fighting?” In this arena, teenagers were much more vicious and violent, and they didn’t much care for my peaceful ways.

One day when a guy from my English side had come back from beating an “idiot Poutine head” up, I dared to ask him why he was beating French kids up. He stared at me as though I were insane and replied, “Because they killed my ancestors, that’s why! Why else?” I sat down for a while, tossing his answer around and around in my head. Was that the reason for so much hatred in my province? Because hundreds of years ago, our ancestors fought over land and held different royal banners? Because one King had sent more military reinforcement than another one? Because one nation had crushed another in an epic historical battle? Was that a good reason to keep beating each other up, because our ancestors had beaten each other up? Gloomily, I stared at the land that divided both our high schools and realized there would always be racism if governments encouraged it rather than crushed it. I concluded the problem was not this guy from my English side, rather, the problem came from something much bigger and scarier than that boy. It came from his parents and from our government which encouraged racism and hatred and anger and violence.

At fourteen years old, I sat with this epiphany and tears welled up in my eyes. I was caught in a crossfire that would never be resolved by children or teenagers, it had to be resolved by adults- adults in powerful positions. But if these adults in powerful positions encouraged such sentiments, was my province then not doomed to live in perpetual racism, hatred, violence, and anger? I was discouraged and disheartened. Then I made up my mind to dispel, as much as I humanly could, this darkness around me through small actions and words. I took the decision to act as beacon of light despite putting my life in danger some times. I would no longer let acts of racism and violence go past me unnoticed.

I did my best, the following years, to stand up against the language hatred that took place in front of me. Oftentimes I physically put myself between two teenagers who were threatening each other with violence, and my presence would calm things, at least temporarily. Once I had to throw myself on a French boy to keep him from punching an English boy, and I got a bit knocked around. In most cases, I was able to calm the opposing camps simply by yelling really loudly and stomping my feet. A tall skinny blond girl with a booming voice can change things, trust me. Add a few body piercings in the mix and flashy-colored hair, she can garner respect and a bit of fear too.

In Quebec today, English and French speakers are still insulting each other. You see it in stores, on signs, in schools, in small enterprises or big enterprises. You see it on slogans some teenagers wear or videos that circulate. We have improved in some areas and regressed completely in others. When I turn on my television presently, I see the same problem in the United States. I hear the same insults being said by adults in powerful positions, showing the wrong example to children and teenagers across the nation. I can only shake my head and repeat to myself my peace speech that I used to give to teenagers in my English high school, “We’re all friends here, right? Why are we fighting?” Then I stare at the land that divides two opposing camps and hope no wall is ever built to make things worse.

(As published in InnerSelf Magazine)