An excerpt from

He Who Laughs, Lasts
by Josh Freed

Bonjour! Mon nom est Josh.

This column was written in French for L’actualité magazine in spring 2012 and was re-blogged a day after the Quebec election win by the PQ. It became the most widely-read online piece in the magazine’s history—and elicited almost a thousand e-mails from francophones, most calling for language reconciliation after a divisive election. The following is a slightly edited English translation.

Hi, my name is Joshand I confess, I’m a Quebec Anglophone. In
fact I’m a typical Montreal angloI’m Jewish. Like most Jews I went to the English Protestant School Board of Montreal, because the French Catholic Board didn’t want us back then.

So I see myself as a Jewish Protestant. That’s because I spent every morning of my childhood learning all these traditional Christian hymns that only Jews in Montreal sing. For instance:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so…


O Little child of Bethlehem, how still we see thee rise…

I can go into any synagogue full of Montreal Jews, and lead them in a rousing chorus of Onward Christian Soldiers, and they’ll all know the wordsincluding the rabbi!

Now unfortunately, while I was learning all these Protestant tunes, I didn’t learn much French, because English schools didn’t really teach that language in Quebec. When I went to school, at Sir Winston Churchill High, I did have a high school French teacherMrs. Schwartz. She taught me French twice a week with an English West End accentthat was one part Paris and two parts Cavendish Mall. But it turned out to be incomprehensible once I was old enough to go East of Schwartz’s Deli.

I grew up on a street called Deleppyand I was fifteen before I found out it was actually called De L’Épée. I found this out when I took my first cab home alone and the francophone driver couldn’t find my  streeteven though we kept driving right by the street sign.

Fortunately, in my late teens I moved to downtown Montreal where I finally started to understand how Montreal worked. I lived in an area full of francophones on a street I called Gene Manz. This was obviously a cousin of  Rue Jeanne Mance, the name every francophone I met  called it. Same went for Pine Avenue which francophones all mysteriously called Avenue Pins.

But slowly I started to adapt and speak French better in this francophone city full of anglophones, allophones and xylophones. I worked in French, I  dated in French I even voted for René Lévesque in 1976 to boost French power at a time I thought we needed it.  I guess it worked.

My anglo wife and I also sent our son to French school for eight years, where at first he spoke a strange hybrid language—and came home saying thing like “DadI want a collation” (snack).

Even today he thinks buying milk at the corner dépanneur is standard English throughout Canadajust like taking the Métro, or the autoroute.  Our goal was to make sure he spoke French better than me and we succeeded. At age sixteen he’s bilingual and totally embarrassed to hear my pre-historic anglo accent.

It’s a garden variety, pre-Bill 101 anglo accent.  I struggle to get my eu sounds quite right—so I’ve been known to pronounce the city of Longueuil as “Longay”—instead of the correct Longueueueuey, But I read French newspapers and like most anglos I watch Canadiens hockey games on the French-language channel RDS—ever since English CBC started favoring Toronto Maple Leaf games.

Overall I think my history is typical of many, and probably most anglos. Our community has changed and adapted enormously over the past 30 years, as much as almost any in the western world. Our grandparents didn’t speak French at all—they were too busy trying to survive.

But today most anglos send their kids to French immersion, or French school and many of them end up with the Québecois accent of a lumberjack and the wine sophistication of a sommelier:” “Dad, Passe-moé le Grand Cru Château Dépanneur 2004, s’il te plaît.”

To quote a recent joke by legendary Quebec comedian Yvon Deschamps: “On ne peut plus se moquer de nos Anglophones ... ils sont devenus  bilingues .. ils nous comprennent.”

We anglos are slowly mastering many others linguistic skills too. For example we’re learning to quickly decode those flashing electronic construction signs on our highways filled with large numbers of French-only words, announcing information like:

AUTOROUTE EN CONSTRUCTION. ROUTE ALTERNATIF FACULTATIF A MONTREAL, VIA IBERVILLE par le Chemin d’Argenteuil, à la Route 66(b) et 35(a)—sujet a des changements imprévus.

And they wonder why there’s always a traffic jam on the Eastern Townships highway. It’s because everyone’s slowing down to read the sign—especially us anglos.
I think the roads department should at least give us some warning with a sign that says: 

“Attention! Affiche en français difficile dans 2 km. Préparez vos dictionnaires!!”

Finally there are the most challenging signs of all—Our No-Parking signs, which aren’t easy to understand if you’re French, let alone English. That’s because they say stuff like:

Stationnement reservé pour détenteurs du permis de residents, secteur 33, 9h à 15h et 17h à 21h—sauf les fins de semaines et jours d’écoles.

Livraison seulement—le 5 mars au 27 décembre—sauf  les lun. et ven. tous les deux semaines. Rémorquage à vos frais—évidemment!

Living in Quebec is always interesting, and it’s made us anglophones more interesting too. I think just like my journey from Deleppy Street to Avenue de L’Épée, we anglos have travelled a long way over the years. But it’s a voyage that’s just starting. The truth is that Montreal is an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in a duffle coat. It’s a mystery that’s hard to fathom—and so are we anglos.

We chose to stay here when hundreds of thousands of others left. We stayed through exhausting sign law battles and two Neverendum Referendums we didn’t want. We stayed because we’re Québécois—and Montrealers who love our city with a passion few Canadians can outdo. We’re all in favor of French signs and French service as well as French wine, French food and French kissing. That’s what makes this French North America and gives our city its je ne sais quoi.

We’ve also stayed in Montreal while too many francophones have quit for the suburbs. And we may need a Bill 301 to save French in Montreal—by forbidding more francophones from moving off the island.

Like many anglos, Montreal is in my blood. It’s an unpredictable, intriguing, special town—battered but beautiful, full of potholes but full of life. It’s a huge laboratory where the English and French languages mix together on the street like in no other city on earth—a global experiment. It’s where comedian Sugar Sammy can do a show that’s half in French and half in English—and sell out to 30,000 people.

It’s a city that’s living proof that English and French get along very well in practice—if not in theory. With patience and time, I believe we can ultimately have a strong anglo community in a strong French Quebec; a place where the two solitudes finally become just one.

I hope our kids stay here too and master the French language well enough to achieve the impossible anglo dream—to get a job as a Quebec civil servant.