The Paris (or Sarajevo?) of America

DANIEL BERGER

August 07, 1993|By DANIEL BERGER

Montreal.-- My vision of the Canadian bilingual and multi-cultural ideal comes in a house in Old Montreal that is a museum dedicated to the 19th Century politician, Sir George-Etienne Cartier.

We stick to a tour group led by a docent. They are white, English-speaking, Western Canadian students, probably in Montreal for a summer program.

She is having great fun instructing them on their Canadian heritage, in French enunciated so carefully that even I follow. She is their contemporary and, from appearance, a second generation Vietnamese.

Whatever else it did, the Quebec language revolution of the 1970s -- pushing the previously dominant English out of sight and making French mandatory -- greatly improved Montreal as a tourist destination for Americans.

Here is a great city with a central business district bigger than Philadelphia's and vibrant arts that is clearly foreign, bubbling with street life, safe, cosmopolitan, conducted in French with English at hand for the confused -- and a mere 600-mile drive from Baltimore.

Of course the language law, requiring French-only in public places, has nutty effects. Shops in the "underground Montreal" complexes -- where you realize how truly Canadian the architecture of Baltimore's Gallery is -- advertise that they will take U.S. cash at a discount. The signs aimed at American tourists are in French only. That's the law.

In the cafes and modest restaurants of Rue St. Denis, Montreal's mile-long Latin Quarter, I come to my theory of Quebec urbanity:

A generation ago, the Quebecois rebelled simultaneously against the English-speaking business elite, corrupt political bosses and the Church. If we are not simple peasants who know our place, Montrealers asked themselves, what are we? We must be, they responded, New World Parisians.

Modern Quebec nationalism was invented in these noisy, busy cafes. Even I could have thought up Quebec nationalism in these cafes.

Montreal convinces the casual tourist that bilingualism and multi-culturalism not only work but sparkle, just as Sarajevo showed the world at the 1984 Winter Olympics. (Which is why Sarajevo was marked for destruction by those who hold that no such thing is permissible.)

But the newspapers reveal another story. People are angry. A big running story hangs on whether the New York State courts will allow a billboard quoting the premier saying that there are no fundamental rights in Quebec, which was put up by a disgruntled McGill professor, to stand near the border.

Another quotes an Indian leader saying his tribe, which is guaranteed rights by Canada and not by Quebec, would not recognize Quebec sovereignty.

Some observers said in the 1970s that Montreal's international business center could not survive the language law. But it did.

Some companies moved but the towers housing foreign and domestic banks and insurance companies are impressive. A society of 7 million people could not support all this. These companies are operating Canada-wide.

I believe that this business center would be devastated by Quebec sovereignty (the promise of the opposition Parti Quebecois going into the next election), but I was among those wrong in the 1970s.

This year's blockbuster art show is in the old Bonsecours market, which was converted into exhibition space. It is ancient Greek art lent by the Greek government. The catch is that it is all from Macedonia, and that's the point.

The message is that Greece is Macedonia and Macedonia is Greece. This is what the Greek government has been saying with respect to the claims of the Republic of Macedonia to be a Slavic-speaking republic called Macedonia. So we have a politically-motivated show of art for art's sake -- and most impressive.

Why would Greece go to such expense to make this point in a city which will never be a political capital (Quebec City is)? Perhaps because opinion in cultural and commercial capitals matters more.

It's pretty hard to run a bilingual, multi-cultural metropolis and keep it stable and productive for all citizens (case studies of Brussels, Jerusalem, New York and Miami come to mind) but it is a great achievement.

The future of this one is up for pushing and shoving by the federalist and separatist political forces of Quebec and Canada. Here's hoping they get it right.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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