Both the French and the English made Montreal.
As we walk through the peaceful cobbled streets of Old Montreal, Jean Francois, a local French-Canadian, points to French and English monuments and statues around the historic center that face off against each other. He says it is a comment on the duality of the city. There are separate institutions such as hospitals or universities that are predominantly English- or French-speaking (though always bilingual). There are boulangeries, charcuteries, patisseries, fromageries and French-style bistros.
But, standing outside the grand Basilica Notre-Dame, next to a statue of Montreal’s French founder Maisonneuve, he tells me people in Quebec don’t call themselves 'French.' “We never say that,” he says. “We’re North Americans who speak French. We refer to ourselves as ‘Francophone’ or ‘Anglophone’, but not ‘French’ or ‘English’. If you ask someone from Quebec: ‘Do you feel Canadian, American, or Québécois?’ they usually say they feel most connected to the Quebec region, more than the country or continent.”
The province of Quebec is culturally distinct, with a live and let live attitude that is more progressive and liberal than the rest of Canada. It is more secular, more tolerant (towards homosexuality, for example) and fewer people get married here (around 25 per cent, Jean Francois suggests). There is even a civil code that, by law, women cannot take on the surname of their partner when marrying – even if they married outside Quebec. Considered a breakthrough by feminists in 1981, when the law was passed, it is now criticized by those women who wish to take their husband’s name – not to mention that of their children.
The separate language and culture leads to talk of secession, of Quebec becoming an independent nation. Several times, I hear local people use the term ‘national’ for matters involving Quebec province. The same issues arise here as in Scotland and Catalonia, a mix of nationalism and also economics, a question of whether Quebec would be better or worse off as an independent country. The current government is pro-secession, but Jean-Francois says support is split; referendums tend to waver around 50/50. Secession, he says, is unlikely to ever happen. Politicians and the media might talk about secession, but most people are happy with the status quo, although the two sides might tease each other.
“There’s sometimes a little tension. But Montreal is a great example of cohabitation,” says Jean-Francois. “People work together, get married… The presence of the two is very important. In art, culture, architecture and food, we have the best of both worlds.”
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