Lorna's Quest


To really understand my friend Lorna you have to know that she hails from Alberta originally. In the midst of all sorts of calamities she is the one who remains calm, quiet, helpful, methodical and kind. The thing that maybe stands out the most is her resourcefulness. She once whipped up a pair of luxurious drapes for her living room in a half an hour and I have the feeling that if she had to, she could figure out how to build a house!

Lorna has been teaching Communication at Universite de Montreal for the last 15 years. We recently sat down over dinner after I approached her with the idea of highlighting her unique desire and struggle to become a Francophone - that is, to live her whole life in French in a French environment.

I asked her if she would speak at length about her ambition and search to become a Francophone. I am going to quote her verbatim here, excepting the various um's and er's, as follows.

Q: What made you think of moving to Montreal, to begin with?

Lorna: I guess I was always interested in things that were different. I would spend hours looking at the Atlas and hours looking at maps and imagining places I could go and what it might be like there. Also looking at National Geographic magazines and imagining those places as well. I grew up in the time of Bilingual Policy and Trudeau's vision of a bilingual Canada and I really bought into that too and thought it would be a really good thing to be bilingual. I had my little French lessons at school, but I don't think I could actually say I learned French at school - it wasn't much and the teachers weren't Francophone. But I had this ambition and I was always hungry for something different, so when I was able, I moved away from Alberta and came east to Montreal. I was 21. In my high school there were also a number of teachers who'd come from Montreal to work there, so they talked to me about Montreal, especially one I was fairly friendly with. So the idea of coming to Montreal started to appeal to me and seemed fairly exotic, while not quite as exotic as going to China or something. So I got in my car with all my stuff and drove east to Montreal.

Q: Any surprises?

Lorna: I'd taken French in high school and university, so I thought I had a decent grasp of the thing until, to my surprise, when I got here nobody understood me and I understood them even less. So I had my bookish French and it didn't correspond too well to how people talked in Quebec. So at first I lived in NDG which is not exactly your Francophone neighbourhood and when I would try to speak French at the depanneur or whatever they'd answer in English - and of course it would be the same at Eaton's, the Bay, whatever, where I'd speak to them in French, they'd always answer me in English which was extremely frustrating to me.

Q: And so how were you finally able to learn French so well?

Lorna: My idea was to come here and learn French so I stayed here for a year and then went back to Alberta for a year, and then I came back here. I'd been homesick but when I got back to Alberta it wasn't as great as I'd remembered it to be. Without realizing it, I had changed in ways that didn't really fit in anymore, and so I came back to stay and make my life here. In the 80s after Bill 101, in order to have any sort of life here, I think you really had to know French and so I started to get better at it. One of the things I did was to study at university and so I enrolled at UQAM, a French language university. But I was smart enough to not enroll in a really hard program. I took Theatre, thinking I could talk better than write, and by the time I would have to write my thesis, I would have a year of practice beforehand. So it worked, and my first few classes I listened more than I talked. By the time of my thesis (second year) I was much better, worked hard and was really proud of having written 100 pages in French. It was probably that which really solidified my grasp of French. Of course, it helped that I got a boyfriend who was Francophone. That's my husband today, and he was patient enough not to switch to English and to explain in simple words I could understand. Because of the university, all my classmates were Francophone and when you are surrounded by them it comes really quickly. At one time I didn't have any Anglophone friends but now I've got a couple.

Q: So, do you consider yourself fully integrated now?

Lorna: The other thing is, with the language politics in Quebec, you can't become a Quebecois but you have to be born into it. So although I might have felt integrated and Francophone, from time to time there were these reminders that, you know, you're not really one of us! This is less and less common in Montreal, as we have increasing numbers of immigrants. But it's not the same in the rest of Quebec. However, I hear people in Abitibi are fairly accepting of people who speak other languages. It seems most people in Montreal speak three languages: English and French to some degree, as well as their mother tongue. I know at my son's Francophone private high school the ones with French names were less than a quarter of the students. In his group there were Chinese, Greek, Italian, Russian and a few French names. The other thing that this makes me think about is that, a few weeks ago I went to a University of Montreal graduation ceremony, and I was surprised that, by far, the majority of names were non-Francophone. So I said to my colleague beside me: 'I hope the person calling the names gets to practice saying them first!' So Montreal is really changing. I think we're lucky to have that kind of diversity.

Here, I interjected as to how Montreal is considered a model of how to get along (nationalities, religions) and even enjoy each other's cultures, and we drifted off into chatting about what a wonderful place this is to live.

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