McGill français and Quebec society

Doctoral student Eric Bédard and conference organizers Louis-Philippe Messier and John Provart. Top: Less peaceful times, students clash with police on March 28, 1969.


BRONWYN CHESTER | It's a little hard to imagine now, but 30 years ago, on Friday, March 28, 1969, 10,000 trade unionists, members of the unemployed, leftist activists, CEGEP students and a handful of McGill students shouting "McGill aux travailleurs," "McGill aux québécois" and "McGill francais," clamoured at the Roddick Gates demanding a revamped McGill that would be francophone, pro-nationalist and pro-worker.

It wasn't a position supported by most McGill students and staff. Still, many student leaders and some staff, including Vice-Principal (Academic) Michael Oliver, did believe that McGill should become more sensitive to the needs and demands of a largely francophone Quebec in the heaves of a multi-faceted social revolution.

Some, like Oliver and Laurier LaPierre, then director of the French Canada Studies Program, believed that McGill should do more to open its doors to francophone students and the francophone public, including offering some courses in French and opening the libraries' doors to the general public. LaPierre believed that McGill should be outright bilingual.

"McGill is marginal in the community but since it is located in a majority French-speaking community, it cannot live in a ghetto, and must be bilingual," he said in the pages of this newspaper -- itself a response to the radical student activity of the era -- two weeks before the infamous demonstration.

Well, the University did not become bilingual -- though since the '80s, roughly 20 percent of the student population has been francophone. It did not open the doors of its libraries to the public at large. And it did not become significantly proletarian in its orientation. (Stan Gray, the Marxist lecturer who spearheaded Operation McGill français, believed, for instance, that the Faculty of Management should become the Faculty of Labour.)

What, then, were the accomplishments of the extraordinary event? This was the question addressed recently at a conference organized by the Programme d'Études sur le Québec with the support of the Students' Society of McGill University.

Opening the conference, held in the Faculty Club, Chancellor Gretta Chambers noted that during those heady days of yore, the very place where the audience of 100 was gathered was filled with police; the administration was convinced that the place would be an obvious target for student or nationalist activists.

But the demonstrators never got that far, noted PhD candidate in history Eric Bédard. Though, given the times, there was perhaps reason to be fearful. In January, 97 students had been arrested at Sir George Williams University for their destruction of the computer facilities, while in February, the stock market had been bombed.

"Student leaders rejected all cooperation with the authorities," said Bédard. "The fever worried even René Lévesque."

At McGill, administrators had known numerous interruptions to their meetings by student radicals and one lecturer, the infamous Stan Gray. He and the editor of the McGill Daily, Mark Starowicz, a long-time CBC producer, are, today, probably the best known of the McGill supporters of McGill français. Gray's status as a leader of the movement was somewhat ironic, given the Ontarian's shaky French.

Now a Hamilton-based consultant to workers and labour on matters of workers' compensation and health and safety, Gray couldn't make it to the conference, but sent a paper read by Master's student John Provart whose essay on McGill français catalyzed the conference.

Gray asked the audience to remember just how "rampant" anti-French racism was at the time and how unequal the positions of the majority francophone and minority anglophone societies were.

Reiterating the truism of the time, "Capital speaks English, labour speaks French," Gray noted that, in 1969, "McGill became a symbol in a rapidly polarizing society torn apart by language and class divisions."

Representing a different shade of grey was Julius Grey, now a law professor, then the president-elect of the Students' Society. Writing then in the pages of this newspaper, Grey, Hillel Students' president "Morty" Weinfeld (now a sociology professor), and other student leaders opposed the francization of the University and the "authoritarian" methods of the McGill français faction.

They did, however, support the McGill français movement's criticism of the provincial government for failing to create a second French-language university in Montreal to receive the onslaught of students graduating from the recently created CEGEP system. At the time, there was a real concern that up to 10,000 francophone CEGEP graduates would have nowhere to go if they wanted to continue their studies.

"McGill has, in the past, been a unilingual bastion, which remained aloof to the awakening reality of Quebec," wrote the moderates in the March 27, 1969 edition of the Reporter. "Efforts must concentrate on the process of giving every student at McGill a command of the working language of Quebec."

Grey, speaking at the conference, noted that he now teaches 50 per cent of the time in French, adding: "I'd like that McGill français be there as much for the anglophones as the francophones."

Grey wasn't the only one at the conference to raise the question of the degree of French known or acquired by the 80 per cent of McGill's students who are not francophone. While most anglo-Quebec students are bilingual, the same isn't necessarily true of the University's American and out-of-province students who comprise one third of the student body.

What does the University provide to orient them to the predominant language of the city and of the people of Quebec? Beyond the pub-crawl on St-Denis Street during frosh week and a course in "conversational Québécois" offered by the Students' Society, not much, it seems.

Alain Gagnon, chair of the Programme d'Études sur le Québec, would like to see that change. In his closing remarks, Gagnon made the suggestion that McGill students be offered the option to have a degree with a difference. Those who completed the necessary courses to be competent in written and spoken French in their discipline would have that indicated on their diploma, something that Carleton University has offered for the past 10 years, says Gagnon.

While the idea was well received by the 1995 Commission on the Place of Francophones at McGill, no move has been made in that direction. So, some students continue in their struggle to order their baguette in French, or simply don't bother and proceed in English at the risk of being perceived as insensitive or arrogant by shop clerks.

Earlier in the conference, former Le Devoir editor-in-chief and former leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, Claude Ryan, who reported on the McGill français march and opposed the movement, nevertheless reiterated Laurier LaPierre's infamous plea: "McGill doit cesser de n'être que dans le Québec pour être du Québec."

Ryan said that "despite much progress… in the eyes of many francophones, McGill remains, for better or worse, a distant and little-known institution."

Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger would likely contest such an observation, at least where inter-university affairs are concerned. Bélanger, a junior professor of engineering in 1969, described the vast change in McGill's relationship with the French language over the past 30 years. He gives next to no credit to McGill français for this shift.

One reason for the change, he said, is the enormous expansion in research in the francophone universities and the great increase in the number of doctorate-holding francophones, thanks to the education reforms of the Quiet Revolution and its aftermath. He proceeded to list several joint research or degree programs in which McGill participates with francophone universities.

Furthermore, he noted, McGill's work with francophones here has resulted in stronger ties with France. In 1996, for instance, "McGill researchers appeared more often in French science and technology journals than did their counterparts at Laval University."