The Secret Life of the Bilingual Canadian

Karina Lafayette – July 2017

Growing up bilingual in Canada is like being the piece of the puzzle with all the wrong corners; no matter which side you’re on, you don’t quite actually fit anywhere. At some point you do try fitting in, but sooner or later people always spot the rough edges in an otherwise perfect shape.

Being from Montreal, the first language I spoke was English. In kindergarten, I struggled to learn French with the rest of the afternoon class, so the following year my mother sent me to a Francophone school. You see, before the Quebec education reform, if at least one of your parents studied in English, you had the option to study in either of our languages. This meant I was privileged enough to live in the best of both worlds.

In the first grade my teacher Martine had taught English beforehand, so while the first month or so meant I couldn’t understand what students were saying, she helped me blend in. At least- temporarily. Aside from this one girl in my grade who would tease me, I always had a circle of friends to play with.

The following year I changed school. Here classmates didn’t know my background, all they knew was that I “sounded” different (see linguicism). The same girl who teased me in the first grade was transferred here and found herself in my class. Suddenly school became a nightmare. Then there was our teacher, Joanne, who would at times call me out in front of the class for no reason. She had a cross on the wall and a Catholic prayer in the corner of the chalkboard. One time I remember leaning my head down on the desk, and quietly crying after she talked down to me.

I also vaguely remember her giving special treatment to the white students, while simultaneously mistreating the few black students of our class. Around the holidays she made a black boy cry after letting him know he wouldn’t get a Christmas gift due to being absent, and he watched on as the rest of the students did. She would find a way to punish anyone who was absent- even if it was only a day- by asking that student to explain themselves once they got back. By the time the principal intervened my grades were already low. When the final semester finished, six or seven of her students had to repeat second grade, including me.

Joanne got fired from teaching a year later.

Throughout this era I was the piece of the puzzle that didn’t seem to fit. Our elementary school being in Montreal North, a very multicultural part of the city, also meant seeing reality for the first time. Different ethnic groups usually stuck with their own at recess. Since it became clear other white students didn’t like me, I tried being friends with everyone else. Till at some point one of the girls would start talking behind my back, which meant most of these friendships were temporary. By eleven years old I got comfortable with standing alone in the schoolyard, reading Archie Comics and awkwardly taking strolls in the park. I got used to the stares, name-calling, and finger-pointing.Translation: “That moment when you start thinking in two languages at the same time.” – <<Ce moment que tu commences à penser dans les deux langues en meme temps.>>

On the last day of the sixth grade I remember coming home and throwing all my class photos in the garbage, deleting my “friends” numbers, and wanting to start anew. My mother was shocked. “You threw away the photos when you were in them?” Yep. For high school she enrolled me into the same place she studied at. Here the majority of students were from the same Anglo-Italian background as my family. So I thought that finally, this was the place where people would accept me.

By eighth grade a classmate of mine casually asked me why I had a French accent. She was from Ontario, but spoke both languages fluently. The question made me uncomfortable. After all, I did spend the past six years speaking it. Having been a part of the only forty or so students here that were enrolled in a French-first program- Francais Langue Maternelle- a part of me still didn’t feel welcome. So anytime they went out to smoke or see their boyfriends, I would opt for either sitting at an empty table in the cafeteria, or writing film scripts in the bathroom stall, à la Lindsay Lohan in ‘Mean Girls’.Yep. (Screenshot from ‘Mean Girls’)

I admit with shame that all throughout high school I turned my chin up at anything Francophone related. Be it the music, or movies. I would sometimes even laugh along anytime a comedian felt the need to use negative stereotypes for comedy, be it in reference to politics or the Habs. I also remember hearing teachers make jokes about the French language, acting as though we weren’t even in the same province. One class a history teacher of ours decided to make us watch a CBC documentary on the language police, which felt more like propaganda against the Francophone community, than something we needed to learn.

However there was one day that divided our high school till graduation, and that brought up old wounds. It was October 2007, and I was in the ninth grade. One of my classmates said the N-word against a group of black girls from a rival Francophone high school, because they were teasing her during lunch hour. The girls then followed her and beat her up at a park closeby school grounds. After it happened, parents tried dismissing whether this was an issue of racism or prejudice, but as someone who lived in Montreal North my whole childhood, I knew better. There were conflicting stories on how it happened, except for the part where she used a racial slur.

A Francophone friend of mine who studied with me growing up and was close with some students at the rival high school, started getting bullied by our classmates. One time in the hallway friends of the girl who got beaten screamed names at her. She was forced to transfer after finishing the ninth grade.

It was only by the 2012 Quebec Student Strike that the light touched my eyes and I saw the language debate for what it really was- a diversion.42% of Quebeckers reported being bilingual in 2011

By now I was in my first year of cegep (or college). I was volunteering as a journalist for the school newspaper. The Quebec Government wanted to raise university tuition fees by 75% over the next four years, despite being the Canadian province praised for keeping education so easily affordable. Many international students and students from other provinces went there for that very reason. Eager to understand why university students were to go on strike, and most importantly, why most were Francophone, I volunteered to cover a protest. It was the first time in my life that both Anglophones and Francophones alike were in the same place without fighting. Here, they were standing both for and, most importantly, with each other. It went on to be the longest student strike in Canadian history, lasting almost six months.Photo above in Montreal, March 22nd 2012, where approx 200 thousand people marched. Below Anarchopanda, a mascot that became synonymous with the strike

While a lot of the movement was beautiful, it wasn’t without consequence. Much of what was portrayed during that time was the occasional riot, with some media attempting to make it look like it was just Franco-Quebeckers “whining” again. American outlets tried making it look like a civil war. Despite what was said, most of the rallies were peaceful. The movement went from being about tuition, to highlighting issues such as the environment, sexism, racism, poverty, and even many Indigenous groups got involved. It was the wake up call Millennials needed. Luckily armed with my first camera, I captured it all and turned the footage into a full-length documentary.

I got to capture and preserve what Quebec really was, a place populated with authentic individuals of loud, passionate convictions who don’t hold back anything, because unlike eveywhere else, they weren’t expected to be “polite” or “nice” about it. They say it likely it is. It’s also the place that’s given us amazing artists, actors, musicians and filmmakers, such as Jay Baruchel, Jessica Pare, Jean-Marc Vallée, Éric Lapointe, Ginette Reno, Céline Dion, Garou, Coeur de Pirate, Marie-Mai, Jonas Tomalty, Simple Plan, Jason Reitman, Xavier Dolan, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, and of course, the late Leonard Cohen.

For the first time, I was proud en tabarnak of where I came from.

Of course, I will be the first to agree that yes, Quebec’s reputation of fuelling debates isn’t without some truth. Yes, historically Franco-Canadians have experienced higher levels of unemployment and at times, even more poverty compared to Anglo-Canadians. And again, it is unfair that these facts are used as a way to insist on everyone learning French to get the chance to live in Quebec. Nevertheless French is a huge part of the culture. You’re right. You’re all right. Most of all, none of us can deny the years of colonial oppression the First Nations experienced from both sides either. The English loyalists and the French patriots were equally involved, last time I checked. We also can’t deny that we both enjoy watching hockey, making fun of Americans, and you have to admit, fries do go well with gravy, eh?It’s pronouned pou-TINNE, esti!😋

I know amidst the country’s anniversary, the language debate and First Nations history are uncomfortable reminders for some, but discomfort isn’t a reason for sweeping these conversations under the rug. Like it or not, no one has ever made progress by staying comfortable.

Within the complexity of things, the rhetoric toward language is often used to hide the fact that deep down, neither one of us is that different. And obviously, I might share a perspective that most don’t understand, and that’s okay. Maybe it isn’t even in my right to tell you how to feel about that. What I do know is because of my experience, I cannot identify as simply Anglophone or Francophone- I’m a bilingual Canadian AND a Quebecker. Since moving to Toronto last summer, I realized that all along, perhaps I wasn’t meant to fit in- I was made to stand out.

Now where’s my poutine?

Karina xo

To check out my books, social media and more, scroll to the menu, where you can also get a reading. And be sure to watch my new short documentary series on the Saturn Return! If you support my work, please consider buying me a coffee.

This article was orginally published on Medium.

Relevant links:

Mtl. school officials meet after two girls beaten
School officials in Montreal North gathered together Monday to discuss ways of stopping student violence, after two…

Census: Bilingualism growing in Quebec, shrinking in rest of Canada
OTTAWA – Bilingualism is losing steam across Canada but gaining ground in Quebec, according to data released Wednesday…

2012 Québec Student Strike
​In 2012, Québec and Canada experienced the longest student strike in their histories. The strike lasted several months…

Canada’s First Nations: The Legacy of Institutional Racism
Why should this be so in a country viewed by many as a paragon in the field of human rights? As Felice notes, “modern…

‘To call myself Canadian would speak to the success of residential schools’
“I would not identify as Indigenous Canadian or Canadian,” says Mylan Tootoosis, a PhD student at the University of…

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