Say La Vie: McGill’s Anglophone-Francophone Divide

Graphic by Patrick Timmer.

Students at McGill have long discussed a divide between English and French speakers on campus. It’s clear that there are both Anglophone and Francophone groups within the university, but how do these divisions affect students? As an English magazine at an English university within the French-speaking city of Montreal, the Bull & Bear is in a unique position to investigate this issue.

The McGill e-Calendar notes that the official language of instruction for the university is English, yet simultaneously, McGill International Student Services issues a disclaimer to newcomers that the official language of Montreal is French, with over 56 percent of the population speaking French at home.

Béatrice Langevin, a Francophone and U1 student in the Faculty of Arts, notices a language divide at McGill, “I don’t think that it’s intentional, but there are definitely separate bubbles,” she told the Bull & Bear. Langevin stated that for students who have grown up in Quebec speaking French, it can be disorienting to suddenly feel like a minority. She explained: “I’m the one that was born here, but because I’m going to an English [university] I feel like the Anglophones belong there more than I do.”

I’m the one that was born here, but because I’m going to an English [university] I feel like the Anglophones belong there more than I do

This issue is not new for McGill students. A 2009 demographic survey of students conducted by the administration indicated frustration from both the English and French speaking spheres on campus. The report stated that many respondents  found an Anglophone-Francophone schism amongst students, with “Francophones stating that professors and staff should be more accommodating of and/or knowledgeable about French, and Anglophones indicating that they should not be expected to learn French.”

One prominent organization working within this divide today is L’Organisation de la Francophonie à McGill (OFM), The Francophone Organization of McGill. This year’s OFM president and U4 political science student, Christophe Savoie-Côté, noted that the language split at McGill does not affect all French-speaking groups in the same ways. “I feel like the divide is maybe more palpable for certain groups of Francophones,” he said. “For instance, we notice that people who come from France are really tightly knit together.”

Aside from bringing Francophone students together, the OFM also aims to reach across language barriers and help other students learn more about French. “We’re trying to integrate people who are interested in learning French, practicing French or just discovering the Francophone culture,” explained Savoie-Côté.

Antoine Milette-Gagnon, a U2 science student and a News Editor at Le Délit, expressed his expectation is not for Anglophone students to become fluent in French. “I will not ask international or Anglophone students to learn French in three or four years,” he said. “But … I will encourage people who are not familiar with the culture … just to immerse themselves.”

Milette-Gagnon went on to describe how students at McGill effortlessly settle into social groups based on language. He offered: “It’s really easy to choose what you want to see, or what you want to hear, or people you want to connect with … to choose to be in a certain bubble.”

Lucile Jourde Moalic, a U2 arts student and Social Media Coordinator at Le Délit echoed this sentiment: “I am, of course, less comfortable in English than in French, so I just tend to be more easy, be more myself, feel better with French people and Francophone people.”

Lucas Bird, a U2 Faculty of Arts student, wrote an article for the McGill Tribune in September, claiming that healthcare in Quebec is made less accessible through the government’s desire for the French language to prevail. This article attracted some controversy, as well as a letter to the editor challenging its main assumptions, penned by two editors at Le Délit and the OFM President. “I think my article and the response to it … is a really great example of how polarizing this issue can be,” Bird told the Bull & Bear.

In the aftermath of Bird’s controversial piece, he explained that he used the debate that followed as a learning experience, as he was able to gain a more nuanced perspective through dialogue with the Quebecois students who had pointed out flaws in his argument. Still, Bird voiced concerns about access for Anglophone students. “One of my main concerns is making sure that international students … feel welcomed and like they have the capacity … to access everything that McGill has to offer,” he said.

One of my main concerns is making sure that international students feel welcomed and like they have the capacity to access everything that McGill has to offer

Students across campus have different ideas for how to mend this division. The Chief Editor at Le Délit, Lara Benattar, proposed that in order to reduce polarization between Anglophone and Francophone groups, English-speaking students should try to understand the roots of the Quebecois’ desire to speak French. “I think [it is] important is to be curious about Quebec history,” she said, suggesting that it would help Anglophone students to better understand “how relevant are the demands of the Francophone community.”

No matter which side of the gap they find themselves on, McGill students seem to share a desire to bridge the Anglo-Franco divide. According to Lucas Bird, the language groups within campus are an impediment to the students’ ability to fight issues facing the school as a whole. “We’re not able to attack communal issues if we’re already divided,” he asserted. Savoie-Côté similarly expressed that breaking down language barriers must start with admitting that each side can be “afraid of what they don’t know,” and that “a very good first step is to actually discuss these issues, and not to cling on our side of the debate.”

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