by Daniel Poliquin
Some things in life are just hard to explain to your kids, you know? But you still have to try; it’s usually worth it.
Take my daughter Anne, for instance, who was asking why two of her playmates always speak English with each other, even though they have French names and their parents speak French. That’s weird. How come?
Well it just so happens that I kind of know their family. The father, mostly, who’s about my age: François L’Écuyer. He was born in Quebec City and moved to Ottawa when he was around seven. Back then, his parents lived not too far from our house, on Cobourg Street, in Sandy Hill. His father was a real important man. A lawyer. But I heard later that he’d been too lazy to practice law and made, instead, quite a career as a political organizer for the Liberals. As a token of appreciation for his services, they’d made him Deputy Postmaster in Ottawa. At the time, it was the highest position in the civil service a French Canadian could hope to get. The only one, really. The mother, a Dorion, was from a big family, also from Quebec City. Very fine people, all of them. The L’Écuyers didn’t stay long in Sandy Hill, though, only for a few years. After that, they moved to the West End.
I can’t say I’ve ever been close to their son, François. The first time we met, he was with his mother; she would sometimes come to see my mom, who made drapes and threaded tablecloths. He was wearing shorts; smiling, quiet. Once in a while, Deputy Postmaster L’Écuyer asked my dad, the postal clerk, to shovel their driveway or mow their lawn.
Back then, Dad was on a committee fighting for publicly funded French high schools – which do exist now. But it was a tough fight. My dad passed a petition around the church community to raise support. He even went to see L’Écuyer, who’d been nice enough to let us in. I say “us” because I’d tagged along.
L’Écuyer turned him down flat. No way. “You see, Monsieur Joanisse, I don’t have time for local issues; and for a man in my position, signing a petition is always somewhat risky. And I’ll tell you one thing: I think it’s a lost cause; French is dead in Ontario. People here can’t even put enough words together to make a decent sentence. The French have anglicized; it’s that simple. Twenty years from now, there won’t be a single one left. Now the other thing is, Monsieur Joanisse, that being from Quebec City, my wife and I know to appreciate well-spoken language. Not just French: English too! That’s why we’ve sent our son to Ashbury College, over in Rockcliffe—do you know where that is? That way, he’ll learn some decent English. He won’t have problems like I did. And Ashbury is one of the best private schools in Canada, teaching sons of ambassadors, ministers, people with money. My François is making valuable friends over there; that may be good for him later in life. And as for him speaking French, I’m not worried; we’re from Quebec City, we know our French, we go to Montreal every weekend—my sister lives in Westmount—and François spends all his summers in Quebec. When he’s older, we might send him to Paris. Oh, he’ll speak French, all right, and he’ll speak it a lot better than all those little bums around here. By the way, Monsieur Joanisse, I’d like you to come this Saturday to help the gardener take down the double windows.”
So I didn’t see little François very often. Only once in a while. On my way to school, I could see him from a distance, in his Ashbury uniform: gray pants and a green crested jacket. One day I heard his name on the radio: he’d won the Rideau Club Junior Tennis Championship. But he always remembered me, waving to me from the other side of the street every time he saw me.
Frank Lecuyer got a good education: McGill; six months at Université Laval to make his parents happy; three months in Strasbourg—long enough to say he’d studied in Europe. I’m not sure where he works now, but I heard he’s a financial analyst; at Canada Post, like his dad. Maybe he’ll end up Deputy Postmaster. Anyway, I can’t bring myself to feel sorry for him: he lives in a big refurbished house on Daly Street, in Sandy Hill. He married a French woman he met over there, Nadine. They have two kids: Jason and Natacha Lecuyer.
Frank still speaks French, but you can tell he doesn’t really own it anymore. He’s got a pretty good accent, though; at cocktail parties, I’m sure he speaks it to perfection. From time to time, we walk into each other on the street and stop for a chat. His kids don’t go to private school… it’s somewhat “against his principles,” he says. “It’s just too expensive, with all the bad investments my dad made before he died, losing most of his money and all; besides, my mortgage is through the roof. One of these days, though, I might change my mind. They say the Lycée Claudel is a good school. That’s where prime ministers send their kids. Plus they teach real French from France.”
I told my daughter all this the best I could. And then she asked me: “Est-ce que c’est parce que maman et toi vous avez pas d’argent que je vais à l’école publique francophone?” No, I said. One day, you’ll understand.
The other day, Anne and I went to some neighbours’ kid’s party. All the parents got there at the same time and I heard Nadine Lecuyer speak to another mom with that pretty little accent French au-pairs tend to pick up in London: “No, we wouldn’t even dream of sending our kids to the French schools. Kids there are a little on the rough side, I’m told. We’re actually planning on sending them to French immersion schools rather, I hear they’re quite good in Ottawa.” A little after that, Mrs. Lecuyer asked my daughter in French: “Et toi, ma jolie, tu veux venir demain chez nous jouer avec Jason et Natacha?” Anne stared at her for a second and said: “No thanks.”
And being the father that I am, I just can’t help being proud of my little girl. You know what I mean?
Read our interview with Madeleine Stratford