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Oh God! Oh Montreal!

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An integral part of Montreal’s linguistic Mosaic is an institution that began its existence here in the early days of the 1930’s Depression. Like the country, it has grown in size, sophistication, and linguistic variety, and it has experienced difficulties, but always its purpose has been the intellectual growth and integration of the individual into the (Anglophone) community, the province and the nation. It has also, of course, exported its product internationally for worldwide benefit.

“Sir George Williams? I beg your pardon, who? Concordia University? I don’t understand.” Allow me…

Adjacent to what used to be Montreal’s Golden Square Mile is an area that has experienced changes in station and in style; situated between Sherbrooke and St. Catherine Streets on the north and by Stanley and Guy Streets on the east-west axis, it has enjoyed all manner of grandeur—and grime. However, it has been and still is a Mecca for not only Montrealers wanting to better their prospects, but particularly for new arrivals in the country who need to figure out how to assimilate into the bigger society.

Linguistic adaptability and academic credentials go hand-in-hand and Sir George Williams/Concordia University is a microcosm of what Montreal has meant for Canadian immigrants from everywhere. Take for example, Emily Cambron’s experience:

“I arrived in Canada from Europe in 1948 under the auspices of the International Refugee Organization with a one-year contract to work as a domestic servant; the monthly pay was $35.00 plus room and board. I had an empty suitcase and $2.00 in my pocket. I was 18 years old and did not know anybody in Canada. I had chosen Canada as my destination, although many other options were available to us. The International Refugee Organization, created by the United Nations, was undertaking the task of resettling the three million “Displaced Persons” living in the various parts of Europe occupied by the Allied Forces. I thought that my high school English and high-school French would give me an advantage. Not so, nobody understood my accent and I did not understand anybody either.“

And so she came to Sir George. And ultimately learned to type, earned two degrees and became happy and successful.

This is a relatively early example, but there are many more—thousands and thousands more. Decades and decades of them: Think of the waves of international and immigrant students. In the mid-seventies the university recognized the situation and established what was to become its flagship program, teacher training
for second language classrooms, and at the same time, it established classes for newcomers, both credit and non-credit. Nearly forty years later, it is still continuing with thousands of ESL students each year.

(Regarding the role of English in Montreal, I see both French and English as 'lingua franca(s)' and internationally widespread. Also I am always aware of the close relationship between the two and the fact that 40% of English
vocabulary comes from French. Students, particularly international ones, really love having the two languages and cultures side-by-side.)

One ESL teacher has regarded her class as a microcosm of world politics. Venezuelans in the 1970s, Iranians in the later years of that decade, then the Vietnamese, the many, many Chinese who came and still come. Then students from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and now Africa. Indeed one current ESL class has 14 different nationalities within a group of 20 students!

This is the more formal picture, but let us look at how the interactions have changed people’s viewpoints as well as their goals. For example, in the previous example of 20 students, two are very competent and beautiful young African women, one from Rwanda and one from Guinea—and both are also registered in programs in Mandarin!

Moving on to less academic results, just walk around and look at the wonderful cosmopolitan flavour of the neighbourhood. Try the Iraqi grocery store next to the TD bank where you can buy grape molasses from Lebanon, honey from Persia, raspberry jam from Egypt, olive oil from Syria and all manner of other items from who-knows-where. Go into the supermarket where the dried fruit and fresh vegetables are varieties never seen in the slightly more distant past of Montreal.

Look at the men and women on the sidewalk, in all manner of national dress, some who only allow their eyes to be seen. It is an experience to be savoured, although sometimes disconcerting. Then, of course, the months go by, these pedestrians discover more about their goals and they move on. But they are replaced as a new contingent arrives.

Of course, this is just one small segment of Montreal’s Anglophone mosaic, but it is now so well known that it draws immigrants and students from virtually the whole world and it contains many different stories, hopes and dreams. More anon.
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The writer is not a disinterested bystander; in direct contrast she has been influenced by this institution for more than half a century, and involved with its second language teaching program for more than thirty-five years. In fact, she is now chairing a committee to celebrate the Georgian generation as it prepares to celebrate its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2012.