It was just about thirty years ago that we moved in. Coming from a few years away in impeccably, obliviously Anglophone North Toronto, it was a change to suddenly hear nothing but French on the street. The older child was three and a half in September 1989, the younger not quite two. This part of Montreal is called La Petite Patrie. On the eve of leaving it, I still don’t know why. It’s just west of the much better-known borough called Rosemont; just east and south of the Jean-Talon market and Little Italy; and just the wrong (north) side of the track. It’s really not anywhere in particular, except that it has a peculiar name all its own.
We found a very affordable apartment, large enough for a family of four, through good friends who had moved in a block away. The school across the street was part of what was at that time the Commission des écoles catholiques de Montréal—education was “confessional” in Quebec until deconfessionalization in 1997 after a long and often acrimonious public debate. Until that year all school boards had to be either Catholic or Protestant. As staunch believers in public education and in socializing children into their local community, we stuck with the local school (French, of course) despite occasional misgivings—on our first tour of the school when the older child was about to enter kindergarten, the principal explained proudly that there were very few problems at the school because il n’y a pas beaucoup d’immigrants dans le quartier (the fact that I was in his line of sight didn’t bother him a whit), and I have written elsewhere about the way the school handled the history of Quebec’s First Nations.
But the school, though nothing fancy, was basically fine. The children’s neighbourhood friends had mostly Quebecois dit “de souche” (“old stock”) parents descended from the early colonists, just like their papa; La Petite Patrie was moving up from being part working, part lower-middle-class to being the gentrified quartier it is now. You know an area is gentrifying when at least two designer bakeries open per year within a 10-minute walk of home. It has not, until recently, been a neighbourhood where a non-French-speaker could expect much in the way of linguistic accommodation from local merchants, as my bilingual (in Bengali and English) father found on his frequent visits in the 1990s—he liked going on long walks, frequently stopping in at stores for snacks, and invariably found that people were friendly and able to communicate using gestures, pointing, mime, and so on, though he remained completely puzzled by French to the end of his days (the grandchildren were in great demand as interpreters). The local linguistic landscape, too, is changing along with gentrification. Now I hear English on the street nearly as often as French.
Our neighbours on one side were and are a family from the Azores, three sisters who each, with husband and family, occupy one floor of the triplex they co-own. We soon discovered that their daughters were exactly the right age to babysit our kids. It was unexpected and fascinating to realize that, on the one hand, it was best to speak English to the sisters, who didn’t work outside the home and whose best official language was based in the linguistic ethos prevailing in the Portuguese-Canadian community well before Quebec’s language laws came into effect in the 1970s; on the other hand, it was best to speak French to our teenage babysitters’ fathers, who worked in construction and had not had the opportunity to learn English the way their wives had. The family’s common language was of course Azorean Portuguese, the sound of which, along with fado, has been a musical part of my summers for 30 years as my neighbours sit outside barbecuing (oh, those grilled sardines!), eating, chatting, pressing grapes, and generally imparting a Mediterranean flavour to this part of La Petite Patrie.
The former babysitters next door and the children they babysat have been grown and gone these many years. Our part of the block lived through a horrifying fire in 2016 that reduced the triplex on the other side of us to a shell for the better part of a year; miraculously, there were no casualties, and my upstairs neighbours and I only had to move out for a short time, but the home daycare lady next door and her husband had to go live in their trailer in the country for eight months—fortunately the rebuilding was complete before winter set in. As she told me in one of our over-the-fence chats, they couldn’t imagine renting anywhere else. There are too many memories bound up with this place. Our children’s entire childhoods were here—something that is only too painfully apparent to me as I try to sort through 30 years’ worth of basement accumulation and steel myself to discard the artistic output of 14 child-years of primary school. Not to mention the secondary-school era hip-hop production of the son who, after that second birthday in the new house, went on to move away permanently from Quebec and to raise his own family in Simcoe County, Ontario, in part because of Quebec’s intransigent language policies.
Thankfully, a whole new generation of children has moved in over the past five years. The young parents who have made our back alley into a ruelle verte called “Rocheville” are mostly bilingual (French-English, that is), upwardly mobile professionals, and enthusiastic builders of local community. The alley is alive with children all summer; the block parties lasted late into the recent summer nights. It’s fine to speak French. It’s also fine to speak English. It’s only not fine to complain (as one grouchy older neighbour did) about how loudly the children play in their various languages!
But my own family is moving on. The now-33-year-old daughter and I have just bought a house together and will soon be living in a quite different though also quite central Montreal neighbourhood, le Plateau Mont-Royal (though usually shortened to just the/le Plateau). It’s much closer to the hustle and bustle of downtown. It ought to be noisy, but manages to be a small quiet enclave of three or four short narrow tree-lined streets that the city has cleverly protected from rush hour traffic flow, using the usual Montreal trick of making sure that the alternating one-way streets deviate into one another endlessly rather than to a major artery, thus foiling would-be discoverers of short cuts, who only make the mistake of trying one of them once.
We are all looking forward to it. The six-year-old announced today that five of her friends from school live on the same block, though we think she may be exaggerating. Her best friend from kindergarten lives directly across the alley—they will continue to deal with the new demands of Grade One as a united front. The school is less than 15 minutes’ walk away. The little brother’s daycare is even closer and on the way to where their mom works. Like the daycare owners, the best friend’s parents are from France. So are the parents of many of my grandchildren’s other friends. So, it would seem, is most of the population of the Plateau—the new name for it is apparently la nouvelle France. Those of us who struggled with required Canadian history courses in high school will remember New France, which French Wikipedia helpfully tells me was “une colonie et plus précisément une vice-royauté du royaume de France…ayant existé de 1534 à 1763.”
Welcome to the twenty-first-century version. The French accent that predominates over a substantial part of Montreal’s downtown west of Mount Royal is no longer the working-class Québécois variety that came to town after the second world war, although one doesn’t have to go much farther east to find it again. My children’s grandfather on the Québécois de souche side, mon beau-père, feu Jean-Claude, used to tell stories about growing up near the Angus Shops manufacturing area in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. He and his east-end friends knew the huge local employer American Can, disrespectfully, as “La Marie Can-Can.”
It’s true that a lot of Bangladeshis (etc) have moved in there too, now. Were he still around, the other grandfather would be able to wander into their stores and talk to them quite comfortably.
Sociolinguistically speaking, are there any ordinary neighbourhoods?