Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Marcel Martel

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Marcel Martel and Martin Pâquet

Marcel Martel and Martin Pâquet are the authors of Speaking Up: A History of Language and Politics in Canada and Quebec (Between the Lines Books). The book examines the unique intersection between politics and language in Quebec from 1539 to the present. Unbiased and balanced, Speaking Up delves into the power of words to affect both the personal and political in Canada.

Marcel, who handles English media for Speaking Up, talks to Open Book today about the research process for the book, the early roots of multilingualism in Quebec and the diversity and abundance of French writing in Canada.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Speaking Up: A History of Language and Politics in Canada and Quebec.

Marcel Martel:

This book is about language and politics. We focus on how Canadians have dealt with this issue over time. Since language has become politicised in this country, we look at the role that individuals and institutions have played in shaping the views of politicians, including around language of instruction, language of communication and the role of the state in facilitating access to French and English or denying or restricting services in French and or English.


Why was this the right time for a book about language relations in our country? What was the genesis of this project?


This project started as a 40-page long journal article rejected in 2004. A few days later, the federal government announced a new funding program for researchers working on minority language groups. We transformed the rejected journal submission into a successful grant proposal. With research funding, we hired several graduate history students from York University and Université Laval. The graduate students visited various research archives in the country and collected various letters, petitions, policy memorandums and official statements. With these documents and others that we had already in our files, we wrote a book on language and politics, which was published by Boréal in French in 2010. The English translation is now available.


Your book goes much further back in history than many other examinations of language relations. What prompted the decision to start in the sixteenth century in your discussion of this issue?


The main goal is to demonstrate that Canadians have been debating the language issue before Prime Minister Pierre E. Trudeau introduced the Official Languages Act at the end of the sixties. Our book demonstrates that language has been debated since the arrival of the first non-Aboriginal. While trading with Aboriginals, the French had to learn their languages. After the British Conquest, British authorities maintained French, as an official language in the colony. With the arrival of thousands of immigrants at the end of the nineteenth century in the country, a majority of English Canadians felt that their language and culture were under threat. They concluded that immigrants, who chose Canada as their new home, should abandon their language and master English and value Anglo-Saxon symbols. This policy of cultural and linguistic homogenization triggered conflicts with French-speaking communities established outside of Quebec.

Since the sixties, most provinces and the federal government have embraced official bilingualism. In the case of Quebec, various governments have introduced a series of bills strengthening the status of French as the main language of communication in the province while maintaining English-speaking services and schools.


Would it be fair to say that language relations are the defining issue in Canadian history? Can you foresee a time where this could ever cease to be an issue in our country?


Language relations are not the defining issue in Canadian history. However, this is certainly one of them. How Canadians have come to deal with the language issue — from tolerance to linguistic homogenization to bilingualism or unilingualism — constitutes a crucial factor in understanding how Canadians have dealt with issues such as cultural diversity, minority rights and reconciling differences.


Tell us about an ideal writing day for you.


After answering email inquiries, Marcel Martel writes in the morning for two hours. He will read in the afternoon and write again in the evening. Martin Pâquet writes in his office at home, where he does not have any solicitations to distract himself. He writes mostly in the morning and afternoon, and he always hears music from classical and jazz to metal and punk rock.


French books tend to get less attention in the Canadian literary landscape than those in English. Are there any great, overlooked French titles you would recommend to CanLit enthusiasts?


This is an extremely difficult question to answer. There are phenomenal fictional and non-fictional books that are published every month in French. Giving a list of French books is an impossible task because we are forced to make a selection that will be disrespectful to French-speaking authors in Canada. In fact, readers should go and find out about amazing fictional and non-fictional books, written in French or translated from French, by talking to friends, librarians, book stores owners, teachers and professors. They should take advantage of book fairs and talk to authors who are eager to chat with book lovers or curious individuals. Go and find out about the abundance and diversity of the book production in French.


What are you working on now?


Marcel Martel is writing a book on vice or how Canadians have dealt with habits and behaviours defined as vices: alcohol and drug use, gambling, tobacco, prostitution, homosexuality and abortion. This is a short book — no more than 200 pages — that starts with Aboriginal people to present.

Martin Pâquet co-directed two collective books, one about Vatican Archives and the historian craft, the other on migration museums and the uses of the past. Martin’s next book will be about the medical doctrine of mental hygiene in Quebec between the wars. It will be a book around 240 pages.

Marcel Martel is professor of history and holds the Avie Bennett Historica-Dominion Institute Chair in Canadian History at York University.

Martin Pâquet is professor of history at Université Laval and holds the Chair for the Development of Research in French Culture in North America (CÉFAN).

For more information about Speaking Up please visit the Between the Lines website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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