My parents kept our TV-viewing very limited; so if the television was on and I was allowed to watch it, that’s where I’d be. It didn’t matter if the show was boring like “The Galloping Gourmet” or uninterpretable like “Monty Python”, that little black and white screen was too enticing for me to pass up.
One spring day in 1968, when I was six years old, my dad had the TV on in our small living room – but I had my back to it. I was ensconced in our large cozy orange chair where I liked to sit with my picture books and whichever of the Siamese cats cared to join me. If the TV was on and I wasn’t in front of it, it must have been a dull show indeed: it was, in fact, the Liberal Leadership Convention.
I was new at this reading thing. It took a lot of concentration to decipher word after word. Suddenly, to my annoyance, there was a noisy interruption: my dad leaping to his feet and dancing around the room. Pierre Trudeau was now Prime Minister!
Such mayhem when I just wanted to read! It’s possible that I am the very first Canadian the new Prime Minister managed to irritate.
But irritating Canadians just goes with a Prime Minister’s job, and Pierre Trudeau soon moved into the background of my awareness along with many other growing-up things, like disco. When his era was over, so was my childhood. By the time I was old enough to vote, I had known no other reality but the Trudeau reality. After I turned 18, Pierre Trudeau was present for one more election. Despite my childish difficulty with him at the beginning, I probably voted for him.
Mom tells me that when we first arrived in Montréal, I spent the first couple of weeks cheerfully asking “When are we going home?” My 4-year-old mind somehow remembered summer vacations when we reliably returned to Sarnia, Ontario. This time, we left Sarnia and never went back.
We settled in the old leafy suburb St. Lambert and – as small children do – I quickly accepted it as home. St. Lambert was interesting because it was solidly bilingual; my siblings and I played on our dead-end street with a boy named “Pierre”, and when addressing our little next door neighbour Martin, we used the French pronunciation of his name.
But of more immediate and overwhelming interest to me were the playgrounds and kiddie pools – easily accessible by tricycle – and our sandbox in the big grassy backyard.
It so happened that something else very interesting was unfolding in St. Lambert: experimental French immersion education. But since my involvement in this required me to drag my reluctant feet to school, I only appreciate this in retrospect. A child will always wish that life were all sandboxes and swimming pools.
The St. Lambert Experiment
My Kindergarten class was the second year of the French immersion experiment: a collaboration of parents, the school board, and academic experts to see what would happen if a Francophone teacher spoke nothing but French to a classroom full of little Anglophones. Throughout our childhoods, my classmates and I were the objects of great curiosity: tested, studied, taped, filmed, and written up.
To me, Kindergarten only meant two things: terror at the sight of so many other children, and separation from my mother. My teacher, Mme Billet, was very kind and allowed me to sit off to one side when I didn’t want to join the other kids. The fact that Mme Billet didn’t speak any language I understood completely escaped my notice.
I soon got used to the other kids. I must have also begun to understand Mme Billet, because my entire elementary education (K-6) was in French.
The St. Lambert experiment worked, and French Immersion is now standard in schools across the county. I guess even my prototype French immersion class worked because I can speak French to adults (so long as they don’t get too philosophical), read Bonheur d’Occasion in the original language, flawlessly order a “BLT, pain brun, non-griller” at the Tim Horton on the Eastern Townships Autoroute, and follow most of Bon Cop, Bad Cop without reading subtitles.
I’m very glad that my family landed in this bilingual suburb in this French-speaking city. We went there because my Dad’s Sarnia employer – DuPont of Canada – transferred him to head office.
Montréal had just over a decade left as a popular place for head offices. But that’s another story. The only important thing is that Montréal became our home.