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French Canadian or Canadien French?

Updated on December 14, 2019

Bilingual Canada - Yes. Bilingual Quebec - No.

Shortly after landing in Canada I decided to take two old people’s courses at the local college. They are called Encore Courses, which is a fancy name for ‘let’s give these old farts something to occupy their feeble little brains and they won’t dwell on the fact that their next stop is the knacker’s yard.’

I put my name down for Creative Writing and Conversational French. The reason for the first course is obvious. There are four reasons for the French course.

1) I feel guilty at dropping French at 13 because I would never, ever, ever need it, not in my wildest dreams imagining I would leave Scotland and eventually live in a bilingual country. (I dropped Latin as well, never thinking I would ever be speaking to any Romans, but, believe this or not, one of my new friends in Canada is a retired teacher – she taught conversational Latin - can you believe that?).

2) When our boat broke down in the middle of the St Lawrence, the only people who paid attention to our screams for help were a Quebec couple. They couldn’t speak English and we couldn’t speak French. We managed to communicate, but I vowed to learn some everyday French, like perhaps. ‘Can you give us a tow into the dock?’ Or ‘Just how exactly are you supposed to start a 3 cylinder 70 hp outboard when you have a dead battery?”

3) Our friends have a daughter who is 9 years old. Her mother is French and her father is Canadian. That doesn’t sound right? Ah yes. Her parents are bilingual Canadians. When the daughter speaks to us, you can see her mind working as she computes and translates. I find it fascinating and I want to be able to say more than. ‘Oh yes?’ to her when she asks me ‘Your woman she is well?’ and ‘You will die soon at your old?”

And the fourth and last reason:-

4) Montreal! What is it with that city? I’ll give you some advice about driving through Montreal –Don’t. I appreciate Quebec trying to keep their language and culture alive but they shouldn't push it. I know, I know, the Official Languages Act 'ensures respect for the English and French languages and ensures equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in Federal Institutions.' That's about as daft as the new Scottish Parliament having to ensure their members of parliament have to speak Gaelic and English.

Canada is supposed to be a bilingual country, but I haven't noticed any bilingual signs in Vancouver or Newfoundland. Certainly, in Eastern Ontario, where the sensible Quebecers escaped to when there was talk of Quebec seceding, the road signs are bilingual - they are printed with English first and a French translation underneath or to the side. You would expect a slight difference in Montreal, perhaps French first and then English. But what is there? French. A word of advice to the highway maintenance guys…..this is not France, it is Canada. This is a dangerous practice.

Imagine If I lived in Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on the Scottish mainland and I wanted to erect a sign that said. ‘Don’t drive any further or you will go off the edge of the country and your car will get damp’. Would I print it in Gaelic which hardly anybody can read? No! I would print it in Gaelic and English. (And so would everybody else…except of course, Jock McGillivary, who is actually responsible for said signs and can’t speak English, but then he already has the boats in the Pentland Firth, each one equipped with heavy lifting gear. Apart from that he has the scrap metal dealership and four heavies to ensure that nobody messes with him.)

Mmm Just been talking to our 9 year old friend. She says that as I drive through Montreal I should remember road numbers and destinations, just as her daddy does. How does her daddy do this, I asked her?

“He keeps saying, ‘Route 20, Route 40, or Toronto’. He sings it out loud.”

I asked her when her father chanted this mantra. “Just when he gets to the start of the city after he crosses himself.”

Out of the mouths…


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