Niall Mackay Roberts - On March 28, 1969, several thousand activists descended upon the gates to McGill, shouting Marxist slogans, jousting with police and calling for the francisation of a university then symbolic of the cultural and economic domination of anglophones in Montreal. Union leaders, CEGEP students and a small group of sympathizers from McGill itself demanded that the university move to unilingual French instruction in three years' time.
L'opération McGill français tapered off in the years that followed. The Université du Québec system was inaugurated soon afterwards, tempering the demand for French-language post-secondary education, and the political climate cooled somewhat as the Quiet Revolution settled into provincial history.
Meanwhile, the official role of French has changed little at the university. Francophones have grown from eight per cent of the student population in the early 1970s to just over 20 per cent today, and the laws guaranteeing the place of French in Quebec have strengthened Montreal's francophone character, but McGill remains essentially an English-only institution. Administrative services are only sporadically available in the province's official language, and until this year the Students' Society had no French-language Web site. More notably, a certain portion of the student body seems content learning little or no French and locking itself into the closed world of the McGill Ghetto. For many francophones on campus, McGill français remains as elusive today as it did over three decades ago.
Le défi français
"[We] would like to see more of an effort from the anglophone students to understand the francophone element," said Sophie Zhang, president of the Réseau des francos.
Two years ago, the Réseau des francophiles-a SSMU-funded service-was founded as a forum for McGill's francophone students, and as a sponsor of cultural activities reflecting the diversity of McGill's French-speaking population. This year, faced with lagging interest among native French speakers on campus, the service changed its name to Réseau des francos.
Zhang, who has also served as SSMU's francophone commissioner, is familiar with many of the complaints of French-speaking students. Growing up in a French-speaking sector of Winnipeg, she also knows what it's like to live in the minority. According to her, poor translations and a lack of communication from SSMU and the administration are among the most common student concerns. Some new arrivals, she said, also feel uneasy in a university environment so different from the city surrounding it.
Nonetheless, Zhang emphasized that a large portion of the francophone population has few gripes with McGill as it is.
"I think there are two different kinds of francophone students," she said. "There are those that are very proud... and expect always to have service in both languages, and then there are those who are more indifferent and accept that they've come to an English university and that this [experience] is part of that."
Wendy Brett, first-year assistant for francophone students, is charged with bringing new French-speaking students into the university community. She agreed that work remains to be done to better address francophone student needs, but she argued that significant progress had been made in the five years since her position was created.
"There have been comments that it's difficult for francophones to get involved socially at the university, and that's a definite issue. It's something we're trying to address," she said. "Now there is an emphasis more strongly placed in terms of saying, 'You are welcome.'"
Zhang, however, has struggled for years to bring francophones into the Réseau that she helped found, and she cautioned against expecting too much from local students.
"A lot of the reason for going to events is if you want to make friends, but a lot of francophones are from here," she said. "Plus, it's not really interesting to participate in a club that represents francophone culture if you're all around it (in Montreal)."
Leon Mwotia, SSMU vice-president clubs and services, agreed that francophone Montrealers have been difficult to incorporate into the McGill community. Mwotia, who operates SSMU services like the Réseau des francos, insisted on speaking in French.
"They have their own social networks," he said. "Francophone students might also think that the Students' Society works only for anglophone students, and this isn't the case."
As for relations between linguistic groups on campus, Zhang acknowledged that somewhat of a barrier still remains. Nothing made this clearer, she said, than last year's student strikes, which affected in-province students far more immediately than their out-of-province and international counterparts.
"It was a big complaint," said Zhang. "The representation of francophone students on the part of SSMU and the administration was terrible."
Still, Zhang sees reasons for optimism in the future. Like a number of francophone students, Marie Gagné, who is serving as francophone commissioner this year with Alexandre Faguy, was motivated into action as a result of the representation concerns raised during last year's strikes. The Réseau has also found its footing again, as a new team of executives has been elected to a service Mwotia once called "one of my weakest."
As for bridging some of the social gaps still present at the university, Zhang said she is looking forward to January's Francofête, a celebration of francophone cultures from across the world, to introduce students to the cultures accessible in Montreal. And she still holds out hope for the university's anglophone majority.
"I don't think there's any hostility at all between groups," she said. "I'd say more than 50 per cent of anglophones would be interested in learning more (about francophone cultures)."
Zhang suggested that the administration work with government to provide free courses in French to interested students, to help bring students into the francophone milieu. She rejected, however, the idea of compulsory French that once distinguished the radicalism of l'opération McGill français, as well as any suggestion of official university bilingualism.
"It's an English university," said Zhang, "so that's what people expect. [Bilingualism] would go against the purpose of a lot of francophones, which is to learn English. That's not a necessary direction."