Between the Lines: Making northern neighbors feel bienvenue

The Burlington City Council, which as one member notes “normally can’t decide on which side the sun will rise,” has unanimously decided to make it official: People from Quebec are welcome in Vermont.
It hardly seems that the Quebecois need encouragement, judging by the number of Quebec plates in the parking garage of the Burlington airport.
But just in case our neighbors to the north were wondering, the city council resolution encourages residents to learn French and make a point of being friendly to any Quebecois who come south looking for a good time.
Or more likely, given the strong Canadian dollar, they will have come south looking for bargains to buy.
“We really want people to know we’re putting out the welcome mat,” says Norman Blais, the city council member who sponsored the resolution.
Blais knows something about the historical ties between Vermont and Quebec. He grew up near the border, in Derby Line.
“I primarily spoke French until I went to school,” he told one reporter. “Like a lot of people in my situation, I stopped speaking French because it ‘wasn’t American.’ When I became an adult I realized what a mistake that was.”
Burlington’s laudable recognition of the U.S. colony to the north has been rapturously greeted by the Canadian press.
As it was described in a newspaper report that ran not only in the Montreal Gazette but as far west as the Winnipeg Free Press: “Vermont, long known for its small-town charm and friendly people, is sending a message to its neighbours to the north: Canadians are ‘bienvenue.’”
One irony of this effort is that while Burlington is making more of an effort to be bilingual, Quebec itself is pushing to become a one-language zone.
Quebec signs that are written in English are the subject of intense scrutiny by the French-speaking majority. And while stop signs in France itself say “Stop,” in Quebec they usually say “Arret.”
For native English speakers in Montreal, it’s all destroyed some of the joie de vivreof living in Canada.
Another irony of Burlington’s hands-across-the-border push: For the longest time, Vermonters of British descent did their best to put down French-Canadians. Immigrants who came south seeking a better life, in the days when Quebec was truly poor, were subjected to decades of derision and discrimination.
This despite their pervasive influence on Vermont culture. “A generation ago,” Blais has asserted, “one-third of Vermonters had French-Canadian surnames.”
Perhaps, at last, the Paquettes, Cousineaus and Quennevilles of Vermont will have their day.
If the red carpet for Quebecois works for Burlington, why should it stop there? Why not extend it to Addison County, too?
The little city of Vergennes will take naturally to this, of course. As soon as we all learn to stop pronouncing the city’s name as if it rhymed with “depends.”
Maybe they can post signs around Vergennes saying, “We don’t speak French, but at least we’ve learned how to pronounce the city’s name correctly.”
The Middlebury College language schools should welcome a local push for more French, as well. It might even encourage students in the French school to take their accents more seriously, instead of relying on a “Parlay-voo-Frond-say?” approach.
Burlington’s Church Street business association offers French lessons to merchants so they can be more welcoming to the French speakers who are among the estimated 2.5 million Canadians visiting Vermont every year.
Perhaps the college’s language schools would like to make a similar offer to Addison County merchants and restaurant owners. If they could speak French, it would at minimum cut down on violations of the French school’s “No English” dictum.
In the same spirit, the college could change its mascot to la panthèreand rename its downtown outpost of a restaurant “Cinquante et Un on Main Street.”
And surely “Hotel de Ville” is a better name for the traffic island that Middlebury now calls “the municipal building.”
Why stop there? There are other things we can do to make the Quebecois feel at home, and to show cross-border solidarity with our French-speaking brothers and sisters, whose newly valuable dollars we have so graciously decided to accept.
Vermont could, for example, secede from Red Sox Nation and declare itself to be the southernmost outpost of Montreal Canadiens Country.
We could replace the pine tree on the state flag with a sugar maple. After all, Quebec produces way more maple syrup than Vermont does.
Maybe we could also add a Zamboni to the state flag to underline our new fealty to Les Habitants (an affectionate phrase, for those of you still mistakenly focused on the Red Sox, that’s used to refer to the Montreal Canadiens hockey team; often shortened to “the Habs” by lazy English-speaking sportswriters).
Addison County already has come a long way toward political correctness — we no longer refer to people from Massachusetts as vermin — but we can still learn a thing or two from how they talk in Canada.
Up there the native people are Inuits, not Eskimos, for example; First Nation Peoples instead of Indians.
Maybe there’s a more polite way, in French, for us to refer to “those stupid, arrogant SOBs who root for the Yankees.”
While Vermont is increasingly experiencing the effects of global warming (see the entry under “Hurricane Irene”), Quebec still has remnants of winter. Maybe we could import some of that cold air to accompany our après ski activities.
Labatt beer as the official drink of Addison County? Now there’s an idea that would get a lot of votes.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at Email him (in English, si vous plais) at [email protected].

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