Essay English Versus French Canadian Culture

In the prologue to his now-iconic “Two Solitudes,” Hugh MacLennan professed to have written “a novel of Canada.” The book was published in 1945, and one can imagine the patriotic enthusiasm that the comment may have sparked among readers hungry for tales of the triumphant homeland. Today, on the other hand, such a claim would sound not only ostentatious but redundant: CanLit, as we often call it, having flailed in the nineteen-seventies through an adolescent phase full of anxious self-definition, is now generally thought to include any work by a Canadian citizen. All our novels are “of Canada,” whether they’re about Kamloops, or Cambodia, or no place at all.

MacLennan, in that same prologue, claimed that “Two Solitudes_”__ _spoke to the experience of “both races … of the country,” meaning the linguistic “races” of English and French. The novel, about a half-Anglo, half-Franco character whose crisis of identity mirrored the nation’s, won the first of MacLennan’s five Governor General’s Literary Awards, and its title became shorthand for what was thought of as Canada’s primary social divide. (Never mind the one between settlers and indigenous people.)

In MacLennan’s day, Ontario was consolidating its position as the nation’s economic and cultural heartland. That it shared a border with Quebec heightened a mythos of disconnection: separatism, many feared, would physically disrupt the entire country, severing the Maritimes and Newfoundland into distant satellites of the Great Dominion. As Canada’s industrial center has shifted west and multiculturalism has thrown dichotomous equations of nationhood for a loop, the drama of Quebec separatism has abated. Twenty years ago, a referendum on Quebec sovereignty failed; last year, the Parti Québécois was soundly defeated by the federalist Liberal Party in the provincial election. In between those two events, in 2006, Governor General Michaëlle Jean declared, “The time of ‘two solitudes’ has passed. Now is the time to focus on promoting national solidarity.”

Despite tapering enmities, though, the dynamic between Canada’s Francophone and Anglophone communities remains less one of cohesion than indifference and estrangement. Dialogue between Quebec and the rest of North America, to which English Canada might provide a conduit, is practically nonexistent. This is partly a language issue, as few Canadians outside Quebec—save some enclaves in New Brunswick, Ontario, and Manitoba—are fluent in French. But it also has to do with the particular codes of Québécois society. Quebec’s cultural insularity protects its language and culture from outside influence—and so, for instance, the province has its own TV, film, and pop-music celebrities, completely distinct from those of Hollywood, while the pop culture of Ontario is almost entirely American.

The “inward-looking, even parochial” literature of the province provides “a window on the Quebec psyche,” according to Peter McCambridge, a translator in Quebec City who runs an English-language Web site called Quebec Reads. But French-Canadian literature rarely crosses over to English-language readers—and McCambridge has a theory as to why. “Quebec finds itself too exotic to be easily digested by the Canadian and U.S. market,” he told me via e-mail, “but not exotic enough to compete with the appeal of something new from Indonesia or Iceland. To North American readers, especially, I think it’s at once too different and too familiar.”

There are, of course, Québécois writers who have enjoyed success in translation. Nicole Brossard, shortlisted for the 2007 Griffin Prize, is widely regarded as one of Canada’s best poets; Michel Tremblay’s “Les Belles Soeurs_”_ was rendered in Scots dialect for a production in Edinburgh; and Roch Carrier’s “The Hockey Sweater_”__ _is a foundational text in almost every Canadian classroom. Still, their global reputations are nothing compared to those of Anglophone Quebec writers such as Mordecai Richler and Mavis Gallant. Tellingly, Yann Martel writes in English rather than his native French.

Raymond Bock’s “Atavismes: Histoires,” the winner of Quebec’s Prix Adrienne-Choquette in 2012, and now available in English thanks to Dalkey Archive’s Applied Literary Translation Program, is the latest work of fiction that could help improve the situation. But readers will need to break through its decidedly specific references: the book, a collection of thirteen short stories, makes few concessions to those unfamiliar with the particulars of Quebec culture—a helpful appendix explains joual cursing (in which equivalents of “chalice” and “host” are two of the most vile expletives) and French Canadian touchstones such as the Quiet Revolution, les filles du roi, and the folksinger Paul Piché. These are stories from a place with its own unique codes—and by embracing this unapologetically French-Canadian spirit, they might, per McCambridge’s paradox, be just “exotic enough” to appeal to a broader North American readership.

In Pablo Strauss’s commendable English adaptation, Bock’s language crackles with the energy of a Québécois folk song, impassioned and celebratory but also melancholy and cheekily ironic. The first story, “Wolverine,” opens things with a statement of purpose: “It’s always been about the words for me,” an unnamed narrator declares, before detailing his gang’s abduction and torture of a Liberal cabinet minister. The echoes are historical—the October Crisis of 1970, which culminated in Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau instituting the War Measures Act to contain separatist hostilities, was hastened, in part, by similar kidnappings. Yet, transposed to the new century, the episode becomes less an act of revolution than a purging of personal impotence and its attendant anger. In a time of political indifference and “tired FLQ graffiti that didn’t scare people anymore” (the Front de Libération du Québec, a separatist paramilitary group, fell into decline after 1971), the young men must remind their captive why they’re beating him:

He needed his memory jogged to grasp the full extent of the excellent work done by him and his brothers in arms, that gang of scumbags who voted in whatever laws they felt like on the backs of us Quebecers, poor suckers who’ve been ceding ground since time immemorial…

The final act of brutality in “Wolverine” is as shocking and gratuitous as it is deflating; the young radicals flee the scene without vindication but, instead, with a sense of irrevocable loss. The group splinters and all that remains is this story, a document that the narrator claims, with a tone of faintly pathetic defiance, is “the truest account and the one that reads best.”

A sense of inevitable failure recurs throughout the book. In “Dauphin, Manitoba,” a young misanthrope wades through the detritus of a ruined relationship, likening himself to “the trapper who falls in a covered foxhole and twists his ankle.” The stresses of fatherhood appear in multiple stories; “Worm” and “The Still Traveller” both feature a contemporary protagonist inheriting his family home. Quebec’s legacy of defeat—going back, really, to the French and Indian War—bears down on all of the book’s characters, and the act of writing becomes an assertion of selfhood against the backdrop of an inescapable past.

“Atavismes”_ _does not deal exclusively in modern-day blunderings. “The Other World” and “Eldorado” venture back to the early days of settlement, while the slyly named “A Canadian Story” is structured around a graduate student’s research on an ancestral habitant. Even that project seems inherently flawed: in an opening letter to his academic supervisor, the young man questions “the very purpose of our enterprise.”

The record is littered with lacunae. No matter how much headway we make, there will always be a gaping hole in our knowledge. It often seems as though our role were to fill this hole in with whatever vague impressions are currently in vogue. How can we attain the objectivity meant to guide our observations when we discuss not facts but lives…?

“I must find ways to do my ancestors’ memory justice,” the student writes. It’s an articulation, perhaps, of Bock’s own attempts to link soldiers on the losing side of the battle for New France with struggling young Francophones in contemporary Montreal. Now thirty-four, Bock has just published his third book, “Des Lames de Pierre_”__ (“Stone Blades”),about a student who longs to break free from a mentor concerned with his own _posterity. This novel, too, examines themes of paternalism and escape, and the ways in which Quebec is torn between honoring and liberating itself from its own past.

It’s an idea reinforced in the collection’s French subtitle, “Histoires,” for which, unfortunately, English lacks a precise translation. While nouvelles is more commonly used to denote short fiction, histoires means both “stories” and “histories”; paired with atavismes it suggests not only reversions to past ways but a sort of anthropological document. The characters here aren’t so much haunted by the past as imprisoned within its cycles and patterns, and often the only agency they find is in revisionism. The narrator of “Room 103,” recounting to his catatonic father the story of his life, says, “There may not be much left of the smart, friendly man you used to be [but] that’s the picture of your old age I’ll take away, the best, the prettiest. The one in front of me now will be erased. I’ll erase it.”

What saves the book from turning maudlin or dour is the youthful vigor of its language and the narrative propulsion of its storytelling. Peter McCambridge suggests that the reason “it’s hard to sell the translation rights to Québec books is that there are so few points of reference,” but the writer whom Bock most recalls for me is neither Francophone or Anglophone—it’s the Chilean Roberto Bolaño. As in Bolaño’s work, narrative itself is often the subject; stories are folded within other stories and narrators are constantly asserting their presence. “For months now I’ve been wondering whether to write my story down or take the whole thing with me into the void,” the collection’s final entry, “Still Traveller,” begins. Like Bolaño, Bock alternates between rage, sorrow, protest, and dark comedy, and the two writers share a sense of urgency—of writing against_ _time as much as about it.

Whether Bock is poised for a Bolaño-like breakthrough is impossible to say, but there are other signs that Franco-Canadian writing might finally reach more North American readers. The Canada Council for the Arts has begun to more actively foster a translation program between Canada’s two national languages, and bolstered funding has yielded, for instance, an English version of Jocelyne Saucier’s “And the Birds Rained Down,” a finalist for CBC Radio’s Canada Reads contest (the Canadian equivalent of an Oprah stamp of approval). This year’s winner of that contest was Kim Thúy’s “Ru,” another Quebec novel in French-to-English translation.

“Things started changing after the first translation fair in 2011,” Alana Wilcox, the publisher at Toronto’s Coach House Books, which put out the Saucier translation, said. “English and French presses started really talking to one another and getting a sense of what everyone’s publishing.” Since then, Coach House, along with other independent publishers such as Biblioasis and BookThug, has been regularly considering work from Quebec. Two translations are scheduled for Fall 2015, including Louis Carmain’s "Guano," which Wilcox likens to “ ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ meets ‘Catch-22.’ ”

Meanwhile, the Anglophone Montreal publisher Véhicule Press recently dedicated half of its Esplanade Books imprint to translations from French. The editor Dimitri Nasrallah, who spearheaded the project, believes that Quebec writing is developing an international sensibility, and that a Quebec-based publishing house is in an ideal position to bring that work to a broader audience. The series includes Geneviève Pettersen's bestseller “The Goddess of Fireflies” and a novel by Jacques Poulin, whose “English is Not a Magic Language_”_ has earned comparisons to Paul Auster. Esplanade has also purchased the North American rights to the works of Eric Plamondon, whose “1984” trilogy has been compared to Richard Brautigan; Nasrallah describes “Apple S,” its final installment, as “an experimental, fragmentary, fictionalized biography of Steve Jobs.”*

“Quebecers have a completely distinct and unique take on life in North America,” Nasrallah says, though that perspective has long been absent from a broader conversation, literary or otherwise. Perhaps this flurry of new initiatives aimed at disseminating the work of French Canadian writers—from the fiercely Québécois Raymond Bock to the globally minded Jacques Poulin—will finally bring the isolation of those writers to an end.

An earlier version of this post misidentified the author of "Apple S."

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French And English Relations In Canada - With A Free Essay Review

In the moment Jacques Cartier stepped onto Canadian soil, Canada was destined to be tangled in the endless rivalry between the French and the English. Before the creation of Canada, it was merely a colony that was stuck in a tug-of-war between the French and the British over its possession. The conflict was brought over from Europe to North America. The hostility between the two ethnicities shows no signs of cooling down even after the creation of the country of Canada. The French and English relations have always been strained and the tensions between the two groups have prevented the true unification of Canada. The main causes of this unending conflict are French nationalism, their policy on language rights, and the federal and provincial conflicts.

The French Canadians have always been a small island surrounded by an ocean of English-speaking people, but the French Canadians isolate themselves further with their strong nationalistic views (Behiels 383). The French voiced their opinions constantly throughout Canada’s history, one of which was the Quiet Revolution. The main slogan of the revolution was “Masters of our own house” and the French Canadians no longer wanted to be treated like second class citizens in their own country (Bélanger, Jean 1). They wanted equal status in Confederation because they were a minority against the dominant English speaking provinces. During the 1960s, the province of Quebec was trying hard to catch up with the rest of society by slowly shedding their strict traditional Roman Catholic views and becoming more modernized (Bélanger, Quiet 1). The Liberal government led by John Levage, promised to improve the economic and social status of Quebec and to gain the recognition for the French Canadians (Anderson 1). The irony of the name of the revolution was that it was not at all “quiet”. There were many violent displays of nationalistic views and the FLQ (Front De Libération Du Québec) were mainly responsible for these events. The FLQ was a revolutionary movement, led by people who wanted the separatism of Quebec from Canada and their goal was to promote the independence of Quebec by using terrorism (Laurendeau 1). They were accountable for several bomb attacks, most of which were aimed against federal government property (Behiels 206). The FLQ abducted James Richard Cross, a British trade commissioner, on October 5, 1970. Five days afterwards, they kidnapped Pierre Laporte, the Deputy Premier of Quebec, who was later assassinated by his kidnappers on October 17, in response to the federal government’s War Measures Act (October 1). The month of October of the year of 1970 is referred to as the October Crisis because of the panic it created inside the borders of Canada. The country was once again divided between the people supporting the FLQ, mainly the people in Quebec, and the people supporting the federal government for the War Measures Act, which was the rest of Canada (Behiels 213).

In hopes of filling in the barrier between the two languages, Canada became a bilingual country. After the Quiet Revolution, the Roman Catholic faith and spiritualism were no longer relevant to the modernized people of Quebec. The only remaining characteristic the French Canadians shared was their language (Coleman 183). They felt the need to defend the survival of the language from the dominant English society in order to preserve their identity (Bothwell 153). Canada is populated with roughly 20% of the population who are French Canadians, against the rest of the population who speak either English or another language. The issue of bilingualism is the fact that the whole country has to accommodate for the special one-quarter of the population. The Quebec Board of the French Language (OQLF) or nicknamed the ‘language police’ by the English media are probably the most feared people to business owners. In Quebec, all visible form of writing must be in French, there are strict laws that indicate that the French words have to be visually larger than any other language (Belhiels 403). Maintaining the two official languages do not come cheap with a budget of 2.4 billion dollars a year (Radia 1). Even Canada’s current Prime Minister Stephen Harper commented on the cost of bilingualism in a newspaper article back in 2001, before he was elected as the prime minister.

Many Canadians question the need to go to such extents to keep Canada as a bilingual country. In order to maintain their culture and their identity, the Québécois felt responsible to be the guardian of the French-Canadian identity and in order for it to survive, the French Canadians felt the need to separate themselves from the influence of other cultures (Coleman 77). The Parti Quebecois is an example of a political party that is committed in the independence of Quebec (Fitzmaurice 182). Despite the fact that the province of Quebec has always gotten special treatment, they were not impressed with the federal government’s attempts to please them (Bélanger, Quebec 1). The PQ came to power in the year of 1976 with René Lévesque as the leader. He aimed to overturn the English dominance over Quebec (Bothwell 160). Quebec wanted more provincial power such as having all taxes in Quebec be collected by the Quebec government. In 1961, the Maisons du Quebec was opened and Quebec’s intention was to sign cultural and educational agreements with France, the federal government quickly intervened. The tension between the federal government and the rebelling Quebec government became higher after this event (Deroucher 1). Since the majority of the French Canadian population lives in Quebec, they felt responsible for them. Quebec wanted to become the national government of the French Canadians (Bélanger 1).

Was the fate of the never-ending French-English feud decided when France was defeated by the British and Canada was handed over to British regime? Ever since then, the French Canadians were forever bitter about being under the shadow of the English. Their different views on nationalism, language and politics, resulted in a divided country. Canada can never be truly a country until the relationship between the French and the English resolve.



I found the first paragraph confusing because, on the one hand, you seem to want to claim that the tension between English- and French-speaking Canadians is rooted in a long history of acrimony between the English and the French, whereas on the other hand you seem to want to lay blame for the tension predominantly on today’s French-speaking Canadians. A similar kind of problem can be seen shortly thereafter: on the one hand, the French Canadians are victims (they are surrounded by the English-speaking people and allegedly treated like second-class citizens) and on the other hand they are the cause of the problem, with their “strong nationalistic views.” The value of these opening several sentences is that they have a reasonably strong argumentative quality. What they implicitly show is the complexity of the issue, even if some of the sentences (identifying the French Canadians unambiguously as the guilty party) seem to deny that complexity.

From that point on the essay loses its strong argumentative drive and devolves into a more or less desultory presentation of historical facts whose significance you generally leave your reader to decide. You have a long passage on the FLQ intended to demonstrate the role of radical nationalism in the perpetuation of tensions between the two Canadian cultures, but you don’t explain how extensive support for the FLQ was in Quebec, or make any specific claims about how the actions of the FLQ helped to foster distrust or animosity between the French- and English-speaking Canadians. Your section on language is even less explicitly related to your argument concerning the continuing tensions. You make several factual claims, but you don’t explain their significance to your reader. Is the fact that some businesses in Quebec fear the OQLF related to the general tensions between French- and English-speaking Canadians? How does the fact that Prime Minister Harper commented on the cost of bilingualism help a reader understand those tensions?

Generally, then, your argument seems incomplete: you present factual claims in the form of evidence but don’t explicitly link the evidence to the argument you want to defend. I should also note that I think your argument appears to be a bit tendentious (especially when you say things like “the province of Quebec has always gotten special treatment”; even if that kind of statement were true, it wouldn’t necessarily help advance understanding the nature of the conflict. You do not need to inform your reader of your personal feelings about Quebec; all you need to do, and should do, is make a straightforward, methodical, rigorous, and neutral argument.

Best, EJ.

Submitted by: yoochunluv

Tagged...Quebec essay, French Canadian nationalism, essay help


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