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Laughter the best medicine for Montreal's linguistic and cultural divide

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By John J. Metzler

MONTREAL — It’s takes a comedian to break the ice in the often frosty linguistic debate in Montreal, the cosmopolitan Canadian city where the French-speaking majority jealously and legally holds the linguistic high ground.  So when an Indo/Canadian immigrant Samir “Sugar Sammy” Khullar brought a hilarious comedy show in Franglais, a mix of French and English  to audiences recently, there was an Spring thaw in attitudes–at least for a while.

Perhaps someone whose parents are from the Punjab, but who grew up in urban Montreal can  poke fun at both the French and English communities and turn his one night act, “You’re Gonna Rire (laugh)!” a  into a hilarious hit show solidly booked for a month.    La Presse, the major French-language newspaper gushed that Sugar Sammy “perfectly represents the Montreal of today, its multiculturalism and its bilingualism, with its strengths and paradoxes.”   The English-language Montreal Gazette described the show as “a unique Montreal cultural and sociological experience.”

Street signs in Montreal

Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world and needless to say the largest in North America.  Once Canada’s commercial and banking center, Montreal over the last thirty years has been losing ground to Toronto for a number of reasons, key among them, the Quebec provincial government legislation which mandates French as the sole official language, as well as the simmering embers of Quebec political separatism from Canada.

On the one hand, Montreal and indeed Quebec’s proud French identity, has created a vibrant literature, media, arts,  and cultural space near unrivalled in Canada. Highly subsidized but fundamentally rooted in the fact that French-speaking Quebeckers see themselves isolated in a sea of English-speaking North America, arts and entertainment offer a vital outlet for a unique national community.

Quebec formed the keystone of  New France in  North America until the British toppled French rule in 1759 and steadily supplanted control over this part of Canada. To this day car license plates “Je Me Souviens” I remember” post a less than subtle reminder to   romanticized history.

Conversely what many in the English and business community see as linguistic chauvinism, sometimes to absurd levels,  has caused a steady stream of commerce to flee Montreal.  But it’s not just traffic Stop signs which say Arret (in France they say Stop), but a wider attitude, found among the French speaking majority throughout Quebec who saw themselves on the socio/economic defensive until recent decades.

Walk down St. James Street (Rue St. Jacques)  once Canada’s proud Wall Street and see the shuttered and closed banks; some of the biggest names  now going condo, or as with the huge Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce  with “A vendre” for sale signs embarrassingly in the windows.  While many banks and financial institutions have often moved into more modern quarters,  there’s no denying that many firms have fled since the 1970’s and the undulating ebb and flow of separatist sentiments.

In 1995, a referendum on sovereignty from Canada came perilously close with a one percent edge favoring Quebec’s staying inside the Canadian federation.

According to Statistics Canada, of the nearly two million people living in the city of Montreal, 60 percent are French speaking whereas only 20 percent are now classified as English home speakers.  Importantly the 21 percent of  “Allophones” are from immigrant groups Italians, Portuguese, Chinese, and South Asians.  Other immigrants such as Haitians, Algerians and a vibrant Vietnamese community identify with the French language.

As a periodic visitor to Montreal since the 1960’s, happily today there are few of  the high-octane political debates or tensions of the past, nor any air of hostility. Most people coexist quite nicely and in both languages, even if Franglais is a linguistic fallback.

Still the city celebrates its many founding groups. The “Parade St. Patrick’s” will be held downtown.  A tradition since 1824, the Montreal St. Patrick’s Parade is among the oldest in North America and celebrates the city’s small but still significant Irish heritage.

Sugar Sammy’s mirth to the contrary, Montreal’s linguistic divide is not all laughs but a poignant reminder of a shared but often fractious history.

<em>John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for</em>

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