A friend told me that, one day, the cafe in his work, whose employees had always cheerfully spoken to him in English before, had suddenly changed all signs to French-only, and not a word of English was heard. “If I give them my order in English, they still respond in French,” he said.

A week or so later, he reported that the cafe was under new management. “The manager told them not to speak English to anyone,” he said. Most of the employees in the cafe were what Québécois call “allophones”, people whose first language is neither English nor French — which meant that English was just one of a number of languages they spoke.

The new manager’s policy made it so that immigrants were not allowed to speak to other immigrants in a language both parties knew. And knowing Québec language politics as I do, if a customer came in speaking only Polish and an employee spoke Polish, that conversation would have been welcomed with open arms. The policy wasn’t about making people speak French; it was about making sure they didn’t speak English.

The policy wasn’t about making people speak French; it was about making sure they didn’t speak English.

Until you have lived there, the depth of Québec’s language issues isn’t apparent. I speak French; I grew up attending French immersion school in Ontario, and it stuck with me my whole life. When I first moved to Quebec, it was with reasonable fluency in French and a weird haircut.

Although my accent wasn’t perfect, I could understand the author readings and workshop classes I attended, many of which were conducted in a mish-mash of “franglais“. A sentence in French, then a sentence in English, then maybe a question in English and an answer in French… this is pretty standard for any public event in Montreal. When they say bilingual, they commonly mean “speaking both languages simultaneously”, not concurrently.

Québec is a place where francophones are an actual majority but feel like a persecuted minority. All the defensiveness that you might expect from being told how and when you can speak your language? Francophone Québécois have that in spades.

There was a news story recently about a pregnant woman who was in a mild car accident and called 911 for assistance; instead of having individual dispatchers based on location (she was in Montreal), she was routed through a central point to a rural dispatcher who spoke only French. Despite the simplicity of her speech (“Help me. I am pregnant. I have been hit by a car.”), the operator refused to help her, and his supervisor backed him up, stating that “911 operators are not obligated to know English.”

While this is true, English is 50% of the total official languages of the country Québec is part of, most 911 dispatchers have translation services on call, because they believe helping people is more important than making a point about language politics.

All the defensiveness that you might expect from being told how and when you can speak your language? Francophone Québécois have that in spades.

The most interesting part was: comments on the news story from francophones Québécois said that the woman was at fault because “if she moved to Québec she should learn to speak French, at least enough to say Aidez-moi!” She was actually in French-language classes at the time of the accident, and it is pretty well-proven that people in times of stress will forget anything but their native tongue.

I also have a friend who has lived in Montreal for only a few years, but speaks French well enough that he is getting a graduate degree at a French-language university; he is dating a francophone, and goes to francophone parties. At one of these, he told someone where he was going to school, and they said (in French), “Oh yes, I guess there are a lot of students at that university who think they can speak French.”

There’s the rub: it doesn’t actually matter how well you speak French. As long as you’re an anglophone, what matters is that you were born English-speaking. You could be perfectly fluent, perfectly bilingual, and it wouldn’t matter because at heart, you would still be an Anglo. Another friend said, “It’s really as close as able-bodied white people can get to knowing systemic discrimination. We’re lucky enough that we can just leave and go to another province to get away from it.”

The more time you spend in Montreal, the more you notice: anglos hang with anglos, francophones with francophones… and rarely cross over (the allophones usually also keep to themselves). I told someone a while ago that she’d be better off walking around town holding an English copy of a guidebook to Montreal, so that people thought she was a tourist; visitors to Québec get cut a lot of slack.

It’s sometimes terrifying. My husband is from the United States and hasn’t lived in Québec long enough to be remotely fluent in French. After the 911 story, we started to worry: what if we were alone someday and I got injured, so that he had to call an ambulance? Would they send one? Or would they argue with him about the language he was using?

There are actual historical reasons for all this controversy. Before the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, francophone children were discouraged from speaking French, and francophone culture was drowning under a wave of anglos. In the late 1970s, the Charter of French Language (Bill 101) was passed, guaranteeing the protection of French in Québec as its only official language, and finally people felt they could claim a cultural identity that they weren’t allowed to even talk about before.

The ongoing debate about separation — epitomized by the 1995 referendum where Québec decided to remain part of Canada with only 51% approval — is really no debate at all. Young Montrealers speak English because they want to, because everybody does. Québec gets benefits from Canada that their constantly-impoverished legislature could never provide (like tax money, currency, and a governmental framework), and Canada gets to enjoy having a slice of Europe in between Ontario and New Brunswick. But whatever the truth might be, the reality is complicated, and more so than anybody ever really knows.