Tag: Prince Edward Island

French Radio: CJBC

I spent four and a half years working for the French at CBC Radio.

Here’s an incredibly long-winded explanation why:

I grew up in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, amongst French Acadians. Acadians are French who originally settled the Maritimes hundreds of years ago. Back in those days, Prince Edward Island was known as Isle Saint-Jean (before that, it was called Abegweit, by the Mi’kmaq Indians).

Between 1755 and 1763, the British forcibly removed most Acadians from the Maritimes, confiscating all their wealth, possessions, and land. Fifty-three percent of the French Acadian population died, many by disease, others by drowning when three of the ships transporting them sank. (Sadly, the world doesn’t appear to have changed much since those tragic days, as recent headlines attest.) Although the British did not transport Acadians directly to Louisiana, many wound up there, attracted by the language, where they settled and developed the culture known today as Cajun.

Ships Take Acadians Into Exile (Claude Picard)

Ships Take Acadians Into Exile (Claude Picard)

The expulsion is a Big Deal in the Maritimes. I studied the events in high school, and in Grade Ten I played the man chiefly responsible for the expulsion, Governor Charles Lawrence, in a High School play called Evangeline, which was written and scored by a local High School teacher. I remember being roundly booed during the curtain call for the dress rehearsal. I believe the booing was because the character I was playing was evil, though I can’t be entirely certain that it wasn’t a comment on my performance: my English teacher had coached me on how to play the part, and after one of the shows I asked him what he’d thought:

“I thought your character would be much fatter,” he told me.

He declined to elaborate.

The expulsion was well known elsewhere, too. In 1847, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called Evangeline: a Tale of Acadie. The poem was about a bride-to-be wandering for years trying to find her fiancé after the expulsion forced their separation on their wedding day. Longfellow based the poem on a story he’d heard; some believe that the couples’ forced separation on the day of their wedding may actually have happened.

Some Acadians escaped the expulsion by hiding in the woods. After Quebec was formally ceded to the British in 1763, the British decided that the Acadians no longer posed a threat and allowed them to return to the Maritimes. By the time I was born, there were about five thousand Acadians on Prince Edward Island (there were more elsewhere: about thirty-three thousand in Nova Scotia and a couple of hundred thousand in New Brunswick). Not all of them spoke French anymore, but some did, and the more time I spent with them, the more it bothered me that I only spoke one language.

Thus was born my thirst to learn French (hey, I warned you it would be a long-winded explanation).

In 1993, I asked for a leave of absence from the CBC to study French in France. My boss at the time, Kel Lack, applauded the idea and was only too happy to accommodate me.

Before going to France, I seriously overestimated my proficiency in French. I had, after all, studied French in school until Grade Eleven. I don’t know what the heck I did in all those classes but it sure wasn’t learn French. My first few days in Aix-en-Provence I couldn’t understand anyone. “Qu’est ce que tu cherche (what are you looking for)?” a girl in a store asked me. I couldn’t understand her. I could trot out a few phrases learned from guidebooks, such as: “un hôtel s’il vous plaît. Quelque chose de bon marché (a hotel, please. Some place cheap)” or “une chambre avec une douche (a room with a shower),” but that was about it.

No matter. I set about making up for lost time. I studied hard at school. Although the school was based in Aix-en-Provence, it was a part of l’université d’Aix-Marseille, called Institut d’études françaises pour étudiants étrangers (years later I saw the actor Bradley Cooper conduct an interview in fluent French; turns out he studied at the same school). I made many ridiculous mistakes. I once asked a street vendor for “un chien chaud avec tout le monde (a hot dog with everybody on it).” One day, when a Frenchman asked me how much French I spoke, I attempted to tell him that I knew a few words. “Je connais un petit mot (I know a small word),” I told him. He asked me which small word I knew.

Garden of l'Institut d'Etudes Francaises, where I went to school.

Garden of l’Institut d’Etudes Francaises, where I went to school.

By Christmas, though, I was able to carry on rudimentary conversations. I began to insist on speaking only French. There for the same purpose, my closest friends were only too happy to oblige. Unfortunately, everyone else wanted to practise their English on me. I began a battle of wills with the French populace. One banker I did regular business with insisted on speaking to me in English. I refused to cooperate. I spoke French while she spoke English. Few things are more ridiculous than speaking French as a second language to someone speaking English as a second language. The loser was whoever was forced to switch to their native tongue first. I always lost. Until the end of the year, when during our final encounter she ran head-long into a word she didn’t know and was forced to switch back to French first. La victoire était douce (victory was sweet).

I resorted to tricks to prevent people from speaking English to me. If I spoke French and they responded in English, I would say “Je suis désolé, mais je ne parle pas l’anglais,” (I’m sorry, but I don’t speak English).

Mais vous êtes américain, vous n’êtes pas (but you’re American, aren’t you)?” (They always thought Canadians were Americans.)

Non, je suis suédois (no, I’m Swedish),” I would tell them, and trot forth a few nonsensical phrases in Swedish to prove it: “Kan jag prata med Eva tack?,” I would jabber. “En hund. Och en annan hund. Sex sardiner i en sardin tenn. (can I speak to Eva please? A dog. Hey, another dog. Six sardines in a sardine tin.) I had plenty of Swedish friends in France who enjoyed teaching me nonsense.

By the time I returned home, my French had improved dramatically (my Swedish not so much). Ironically, I still couldn’t understand Acadians. Acadian French is not quite the same as what I had learned in France. The accent is markedly different. It’s said that Acadian French resembles the French spoken in France about four hundred years ago, when Acadians first settled PEI. I suspect there’s some truth to this.

When I returned to the CBC in Toronto, my boss Kel Lack had retired and Charlie Cheffins had taken his place. Charlie thought it was brilliant that I’d learned some French. It meant he’d be able to place me in the French department. I agreed, and so began four and a half years of working almost exclusively for CJBC.

You might recall from an earlier post that CJBC is an affiliate of the ici Radio-Canada Premiere network, broadcasting to Franco-Ontarians at AM 860. They are a part of the CBC, and broadcast out of the Broadcast Centre in Toronto, but they report to French Services in Montreal. Or you might have skipped over this admittedly dry bit of exposition in both posts (I don’t blame you).

Everyone I worked with at CJBC was bilingual to one degree or another. My French was still very much a work in progress. I continued to improve, but at a much slower pace. My enthusiasm for speaking French had waned somewhat now that I was living my life in English once again. And I was having a bit of trouble with francophone accents in Canada. Not hearing one or two words in a sentence correctly can be enough to make the meaning of an entire sentence suspect. Making matters worse, almost everyone at CJBC was as bad about speaking French to me as the folks in France had been. Just like my banker frenemy, when I spoke French, they replied in English (there were a couple of exceptions).

Still, with all the French floating around CJBC, I couldn’t help but improve my French just by keeping my ears open. Here are a few of the words and phrases burned into my brain during my time with CJBC:

C’est mon lot (it’s my lot in life).” That was Guy Lalonde, the host of CJBC Express. I can’t remember what he was referring to. What I do remember is asking him to repeat what he’d said so I could add it to my vocabulary. I present it here not because the phrase itself is particularly interesting, but to illustrate one of the best ways to learn French, which is to ask people what the heck they’re saying when you don’t understand them. Otherwise it will be your lot in life to remain unilingual. (I learned a good portion of my French this way.)

Il bâille. Dans ma face! (He yawns. In my face!)” Frank Desoer was host of CJBC Express during my second year with CJBC. (I’ve no idea what happened to Guy Lalonde. CJBC Express went through hosts the way the French go through cheese.) Frank was just pretending to be angry, but his words lodged themselves into my brain, and I enjoy trotting them out whenever somebody yawns in my face.

Esther Ste-Croix was the producer of a show called De A a X (from A to X). Esther was a lovely woman, and you’ll have to take my word for it that I didn’t usually tease her, but I must have one day, for she replied, “Tu te moque de moi (you’re making fun of me).” Naturally I asked her to repeat herself, which she kindly did, allowing me to add that expression to my repertoire.

Other staff were fond of exclaiming, “Ben voyons donc!” to express frustration or incredulity. Taken literally it doesn’t make much sense—it seems to me that it would translate as, “well, let’s see therefore!” but francophones use it like anglophones use, “oh, come on!”, which doesn’t really make any sense either. Come where, exactly?

One particularly memorable day I ran into someone from CJBC whose name I must withhold to spare them undue embarrassment. We were on the second floor—not his natural habitat, and he was a little lost. He was also looking a little green around the gills.

“Where are the washrooms on this floor?” he asked me in English.

It was easier to show him, so I led him around a corner. A few steps down the hallway he placed a hand to his mouth and exclaimed, “Ca s’en vient! (it’s coming!)”

A half-second later he projectile-vomited his lunch the entire length of the corridor, a magnificent feat the likes of which I’ve yet to see equaled—and that I think of whenever I hear the words ca s’en vient. (You never know just what might be coming.)

Sometimes I would discern a jumble of words in the middle of an anecdote that I couldn’t quite make out. One day I got frustrated enough to ask someone what exactly they were saying. It took a minute to figure out which words I was talking about, but we finally narrowed it down to “a un moment donné.”

Literally translated, it means “at a given time.” People were using it to mean “at one point.” (It’s at this point that I must advise you to take any translations I provide with a grain of salt. Le français est pas ma langue maternelle—French is not my mother tongue). A un moment donné is (I believe) a rather common phrase, and I mention it here because it’s a terrific example of how understanding a single phrase can, in one fell swoop, render a foreign language infinitely more intelligible. And let’s take a moment here to pause and reflect on what a nifty expression “one fell swoop” is, and how cryptic it must sound to those speaking English as a second language.

More about CJBC in my next post…

Toronto Gay Pride Week

Throwing Confetti During Gay Pride Parade

Throwing Confetti During Gay Pride Parade

Got up this morning, ate my usual English Muffin with peanut butter and jam accompanied by a banana, an orange, and a glass of water, opened the Toronto Star, and was immediately confronted with hatred.

There was an article about a man who, along with his family and several hundred others, was rounded up in 1941 and marched at gunpoint to a pit in the forest where they were all murdered and buried in the pit for the crime of being Jews. The man survived to tell the tale so that I, in the comfort of my peaceful, middle class home seventy-two years later, could learn about the capacity of the human race to hate. And not just hate, but HATE.

This depressed me. It probably depressed many decent people. How is such hate possible?

Later I was listening to CBC Radio’s DNTO which today is about the elasticity of gender, where I was confronted with my own capacity for hatred.

I grew up in Prince Edward Island where I encountered to my knowledge two gay men and no gay women that I’m aware of. I know now that there were many more but at this time only two were out of the closet. I did not hate the two that I knew, in fact one of them was a favourite teacher, a drama teacher, who cast me in one of his plays, and the truth is I didn’t think much, if ever, about the fact that he was gay.

It was only later when I was in university in Nova Scotia and in the company of many shallow youth such as myself that I began to contribute to the culture of intolerance and, yes, hatred for homosexuality. I did not understand it, I thought it was wrong, I was surrounded by like-minded people who affirmed this kind of wrong-headed thinking. Thinking created by not thinking with any kind of intellectual rigour about homosexuality, thinking manufactured by fundamentalist religious views, thinking promoted by wanting to fit in, to become that much more accepted by your peers by generating a few laughs about an easy-to-target demographic that you think has nothing to do with you, really.

I moved to Toronto to attend university there. I got a job as a security guard at 77 Carleton Place. My first boss was George, a World War Two vet who went abroad to fight against exactly the kind of hate that I started this post with. “We’re not allowed to carry weapons,” he told me when I started. “We are allowed to carry keys, though.” And he produced a key attached to a long wooden stick that I hope to God he never actually had to hit anyone with.

George also talked to me about one of the other security guards, a handsome, fit man in his early forties who also worked as an underwear model. I can’t remember George’s exact words about this gentleman, but it was clear what George thought his sexual orientation was, and that George did not entirely approve.

George got sick and the handsome man became my boss. One night myself, the handsome man and another security guard happened to be working together and the subject of homosexuality came up. This was not as random as it might seem because there was a tenant in the building dying of Aids at the time. He looked terrible and was the first person I’d ever met who I was aware suffered from Aids. I do not believe he survived long after I met him.

Anyway, in a moment of candour I wish I could erase from my life (along with the attitude that produced it), I told my new boss (conveniently pretending that I suspected nothing about his sexual orientation) what I thought of male homosexuality.

I never worked as a security guard again.

My next job was working for a private production company. One of the biggest jobs I worked on for this company was producing a documentary on Aids. It was about a young man dying of Aids and the struggle of his family to come to terms with both his sexual orientation and the fact that he was terminally ill. Before the father (a tough, grizzled autoworker) learned of his son’s illness he was every bit as prejudiced as I was at the time. He’d never really thought about the subject before. But, he told us on camera, choking back tears, nothing mattered to him now but his love for his son.

This was just one brick in the wall of my own education on the matter. After that I went to work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. My first year there I fell in love with a woman who never loved me back, at least the same way, because she was gay. I won’t write any more about that for reasons of discretion except to say that this was the emotional juggernaut that prompted me for the first time to really think about the subject. I talked to people, visited bookstores in which I spent hours reading about homosexuality, trying to understand. I started from the position that homosexuality was a choice, a bad choice. I seriously thought I could get this woman to change her mind. I actually told people that I thought a crime had been committed, as if someone had corrupted her in some way. I would get her to come around, I thought.

But the crime was mine, of not understanding.

My feelings on the matter were further complicated when I moved in with two women who, two days before I moved in with them, informed me that they were gay. I had guessed because of a certain lack of bedrooms. They were going to tell me the day I moved in. I lived with them for six months during which they treated me abominably, ignoring me, not speaking to me. It was a terrible, emotionally damaging experience, and one of the happiest days of my life was the day I moved out.

You would think that experience might have deepened my prejudices, but in fact I was already starting to come around. I had friends by this time who were clearly gay and I would defy anybody to truly be friends with someone either gay, Jewish, black, animal, alien or otherwise and remain intolerant. Or at least I hope so.

To this day I don’t think I have any true comprehension of what it’s like to be gay or the subject of any real intolerance, prejudice or hatred. I’m a straight white male who in many ways has it easy. But I hope, I hope to God, that I have eradicated as much hate and intolerance from my being as possible. I attended a church for a while, full of people that I like, but who adhered to a certain fundamentalist perspective such as an intolerance for homosexuality that after a while I couldn’t look past, that to me amounted to just a different kind of hate. So I stopped attending.

After a while of living I realized that my true religion was people. People over ideals. My idea is that as long as I place people first, whether gay, black, pink, purple or what have you, I can’t go wrong. I don’t care what you believe, if it places any kind of people anything other than first, you wind up with hate.

Author Iain Banks summed it up nicely: “F*** every cause that ends in murder and children crying.”

Amen.

Happy Pride Week.

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