Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Man from Swift Current - Chapter Seven - Quebecois

Chapter Seven – Quebecois
Not long after Thanksgiving, Aunt Mary and a group of her friends decided that we needed to help them send a message to the Safeway management (Safeway is a supermarket chain who has a store in our town).   Just after breakfast on Saturday morning, Aunt Mary asked, “Are you kids up for some excitement this morning?”  
We, Nancy, Cynthia, Ben, Ian and I, all looked at each and then nodded in the affirmative.  “Mom, what do you have in mind?” asked Ben.
“We, me and some of the ladies in the neighborhood, have decided it’s time to stand up for ourselves.  The local Safeway manager was transferred to Vancouver a couple of weeks ago and a new guy from Quebec has replaced him.   The new manager has taken it upon himself to force us to become better French speakers by placing all of the product labels on the shelves with the French side out.   We are going to go into the store today and turn all of the labels to the English side.   We plan to keep doing it until either he gets the message or he gets transferred to a different store.”
We all just sat there staring at her with our mouths open.   Finally, she said, “Close your mouths and let’s get ready to go.  It shouldn’t surprise you in the least that I’m willing to do such a thing!”
So we did as we were told and got ourselves together and we all piled into the SUV and drove down to the Safeway store.   I was really surprised to find about a dozen of our neighbors and their kids standing outside the store waiting for us.   Aunt Mary greeted everyone and shouted, “Okay, let’s get to work.  We don’t have all day!  You all have your assigned isles!   Don’t forget the refrigerated and freezer sections!”
Ian leaned over and whispered into my ear, “Is Aunt Mary always so militant?”  
“No, this is the first time I have seen this side of my Aunt!” I said.
Ian and I started at one end of the canned vegetable isle while Nancy and Ben started at the other end.   It didn’t take long to finish the job.   As we returned to the front of the store, Aunt Mary had confronted the store manager, “We speak English here.   We strongly recommend that you have your employees place items on the shelves with the English side showing!”   The store manager looked very angry and his face had turned very red.   “We will continue to come back every morning to check and we will turn the English label out throughout the store until you decide to honor our request.”
“You have no right to do that!” he shouted at Aunt Mary.
“I not only have the right but I will call your corporate headquarters to complain that you are not meeting the needs of your customers!” Aunt Mary exclaimed as she turned from him and marched out of the store with all of us following in her wake.
This state of affairs continued every day for two more weeks.  The Quebecois store manager was finally transferred back to Quebec.   Aunt Mary and her friends threw a huge party in celebration and made sure we were recognized as being part of the success of the whole endeavor.   They compared it to the American Boston Tea Party since the community hadn’t been consulted before the French labels were placed facing outwards and the English speaking community felt their rights were being violated.
This caused quite a stir in the community among English speakers.   Most of the people I know (both adults and classmates) are in favor of Quebec going its own way and having the western provinces join the USA as new states or becoming an independent country of their own.   Of course, Ben and I reflected the opinions of our elders.   Ian didn’t have an opinion either way being Norwegian and the language thing didn’t make sense to him at all.
However, Ben and I had some problems in school because of our strong feelings about the subject.  It all started in French class.   There were a couple of Quebecois students in the class who seemed to always be showing off since they already spoke French, or at least it seemed that way.   Ben and I always sat at the back of the classroom and with the rest of our group of friends.   Today, two of the Quebecois students walked to the  back of the room to get something for Mrs. St. Laurent.  
Ben called out to them, “Hey, why don’t you go back to Quebec where you belong”
Francois retorted in French, “I belong here just as much as you do.”
“Since Quebec wants to go its own way and preserve its French identity, why are you here?  We speak English in Saskatchewan not French” Ben said.
“Because we are Canadians just like you,” Francois responded, in English this time.
“Well, what if we don’t want you here?” Ben asked in a belligerent tone.
“I guess you’ll just have to live with it won’t you since we’re here to stay.” Francois said.
Francois’ friend, Jean-Michael, flipped us off and mouthed, “Fuck you,”
Ben grabbed Jean-Michael’s finger and bent it back, bringing him to his knees, “Nobody flips me off and gets away with it!”
Next thing I knew, Francois hit Ben in the chin with a right hook, knocking him out his seat.   I jumped out of my chair and threw a punch at Francois hitting him in the stomach.   Jean-Michael came at me with both fists flying.   He managed to land a couple of punches before Ben pulled him off of me.   I looked around to see Mrs. St. Laurent coming towards us, shouting in French telling us to stop.  She ordered us to the principal’s office.  Ben and I looked like we had gotten the worst of it.   He had knot on his head where he had hit the floor and I could feel that my right eye was swelling up.   Francois had a couple of bruises as did Jean-Michael.  When we arrived at the principal’s office, we were marched directly into his office.
“Okay, does anyone want to tell me what happened?” asked Mr. Fuchs.
There was a heavy silence in the room for a moment.   When no one volunteered an answer, he said, “Okay, since I’m not hearing anything from you, it will be three days suspension for fighting on school grounds for all of you.  You may phone your parents to come pick you up.   I will inform your teachers.   You will need to arrange to pick up your assignments from each class as you will be expected to turn in all of them as if you had been present at school.  Please be assured that I will be expecting a written apology for Mrs. St. Laurent before you’ll be allowed to return to school.  You’re dismissed.”
When Uncle Dave picked us up, he asked, “Okay, guys, do you want to explain what happened?”
Ben said, “I started an argument with the Quebecois students in French class and it ended up in a fist fight.   Dad, I hate French and I hate the way those Quebecois think they are so special.  They are always acting like they are so much better than anyone else.   Why can’t they learn to be a part of Canada like the rest of us?”
“I understand your feelings Ben, your mother and I feel the same way as you do, but you need to understand that there are better ways of communicating your feelings than with your fists,” Uncle Dave said.
Later that day, Uncle Dave received a phone call from the school.   Mrs. St. Laurent refused to take us back into her class.   The principal offered to provide a list of tutors that we could engage to help us finish our French studies as we would still be expected to take the French exams at the end of the term.
Ben and I were quite happy to complete our French class coursework at home with a tutor since the French teacher didn’t want us back in her class.   That suited us just fine despite the lecture we received from Uncle Dave about being tolerant of other people and not trying to solve our problems with violence.   My Dad was furious and told me to expect to return home at the Christmas break to finish out my senior year at Kincaid Central.   That really made me mad.   I suppose I deserved it but it made me angry just the same.
I really liked studying at home since Ian already spoke fluent French and would come over to help us learn the language.   I never could concentrate on learning French with Ian so close by but I managed to pass the required exams to satisfy our graduation requirements.
We were finally out for Christmas break and it was time to go back home to the farm.  Nancy and I were sitting in the front room with Aunt Mary when Mom and Dad arrived.
Mom and Dad came into the front room.  “Hey, what’s with the sad faces?  It’s the Christmas holidays.   You should be happy to be out of school,” Dad said.
“They are afraid you will tell them they have return to Kincaid Central after the holidays, dear,” Mom said.
“Well, we need to talk about the little incident in French class.   Three days suspension and having to pay a tutor to learn French doesn’t sound like it’s a good idea to leave Glenn here,” Dad said
“I’m sorry, Dad,” I said.   “I know things got a little of control.”
Aunt Mary said, “Well, I am a little to blame since I got the boys all fired up about the Quebecois manager at the Safeway.   I can’t let you lay everything on Glenn’s shoulders, Don.”
“That still doesn’t change what happened at school, Mary.   I can’t have my son acting so irresponsibly especially when he feels so strongly about something.   I should know since I’m the one who lost it when Randy and Shawn came home last summer.   It’s better that Glenn learn to control his emotions now then regret his actions at later date.” Dad said.
“I promise there won’t be any more problems if you’ll let us stay to finish the school year,” I said.  “I have already apologized to the Quebecois kids at school and they have become friends with Ben and me.”
“We’ll see, son, right now we need to be heading back to the farm.  You and Nancy need to load your things in the car while we say good-bye to your Aunt,” Dad said.
We both left the room to get our things.
After we had left, Dad said, “Mary, we decided to let Glenn and Nancy stay for the rest of the school year; however, I want them to realize that it is a privilege to be here and to treat it as such.  I will tell them at the end of the holidays.”   Dad gave them both a warm embrace.   He took Mom by the arm and escorted her out to the car as Nancy and I were putting our things in the trunk.   It was a long drive home to the farm.  I was pretty upset and kept thinking of ways I could convince my Dad to let us go back to school in Swift Current.


Anonymous said...

Too bad you are using this story to do easy Quebec backslashing. You are missing something about what being a true Canadian means.

SaskBoyStories by Russ Nielsen said...

I'm sorry you view it as easy Quebec bashing. Fact: The events I have narrated here happened in real life. I pulled them from my journals. I participated in the events and the feelings of my family and friends were very real. Things have improved over the years since these events took place. What Quebec put us through with its separatist movement really damaged the self image we had as Canadians as a nation. Again, I'm sorry you see it as easy bashing. Believe me it wasn't easy to live through those events.

Anonymous said...

Not all Canadians felt this way during the referendum and I do not recall there being that much hatred toward Quebecois in Ontario at the time. Most people were indifferent and felt that if they really wanted to separate than let them. I am appalled that the events in this chapter actually occurred.