By Sylvie Roy
“So where are you from?” asked a new acquaintance a few minutes into our get-to-know-you chat.
“I grew up in Quebec but left thirty-eight years ago.”
(Gasp!) “And you still have such a strong accent?”
The two questions never change. And neither does the response, except for the years I add as I get older. My accent marks me as Not Quite from Here even though I grew up in Canada.
And since I’m thinking about accents and my adult-acquired ability to speak, to read, to think and to write in English, it brings Mademoiselle Dorais, my grade nine English teacher, to mind. And not because I miss her. I don’t. I don’t miss her or her Pen. Her Pen? Yes, her Pen, her instrument of torture. No it didn’t stab me or puncture me or wound me. In body at least. But I spent my entire grade nine English class watching Mademoiselle Dorais’s Pen, meandering, zigzagging, sauntering then attacking somewhere in the pool of names in front of her. When The Pen hovered at the top or even the middle of the page, I would relax for a few seconds, knowing I had escaped since I knew my name dwelt close to the bottom. But when it would sneak dangerously low, I would feel my heart racing and my hands sweating. Then The Pen would stab my name and my brain, in reaction would squeeze out any lingering thinking neurons. I never knew what she was asking. I just knew I had no idea. She could ask what continent Brazil sat on or what animal gave us our daily milk and all I could answer was, “Dog? … Horse?…” or any random answer from my very limited vocabulary. Invariably she would roll her eyes and make what I assumed was a snide comment or just roll her eyes. Since I dreaded that daily dose of embarrassment, I loathed English. But in spite of that less than auspicious start into Shakespeare’s tongue, I now enjoy this language, the bane of my grade nine existence. Now I consider the Prairies home and speaking English has become so natural, I rarely give it a thought.
Spending a few days with my mother-in-law in the Alzheimer wing of her old-age home, a while back, I was struck by the theme of home creeping into the residents’ conversations, like the same refrain from different singers, Where are you going today? Home. Or I’m going home today? Are you? Forget that this was a locked-in ward where nobody could go out at will. Did they mean the home they grew up in or the home they created later for their families? I don’t know. It was not clear. It was clear however that the longing for home stays alive and well, even when the memory deteriorates to the point of forgetting what one had for lunch. Home clung to brain and memory like a suckling babe to his mother’s breast.
Yet my accent tells new friends I’m not quite from here. But when I visit Quebec, where I grew up, I miss the long intervals found between Saskatchewan small towns. And I miss the Saskatchewan sky–whole skies of it, not just pieces of it. And I miss the more relaxed driving pace of the Prairies. I feel myself cramped and yearn for the vast spaces I know I can find just outside Regina. I don’t quite belong in Quebec anymore either. So where is home now?
Is home where I have spent the majority of my adult life, raising my family, volunteering, working, voting in the provincial elections, speaking in the second language I learned to be able to communicate with the people living around me on their terms? Or is home where I was born and grew up even if I no longer live there?
Years ago, as a historical interpreter at Government House (previously the Lieutenant-Governor’s residence and now a museum), I toured a class of Muslim students. Afterwards, one little girl, Egyptian-born I later learned, pulled at my blouse and very much wanted to tell me something. Here she was in her red school uniform with a white hijab framing her beautiful dark eyes. I bent to listen. She looked at me intently and with such pride and joy in her dark gaze, told me: Yesterday I became a Canadian citizen and today I’m here! I was so touched by the obvious delight she took in her new Canadian citizenship, I could not speak for a few moments for fear I would start blubbering. I had never seen such pride about being Canadian in any Canadian-born child, or adult for that matter.
With the shocking news of the Mosque attack in Quebec, I could not help but hear the pain and anguish of these Muslims men and women speaking an articulate French but with an accent, the way I speak English. But listening to them left no doubt that Quebec, the home of my family for 350 years, has become their home, the same way the Prairies have become mine, even if every word I utter marks me as a newly arrived Prairie girl. Accents, after all, are testimonies of the effort one makes to communicate with you, on your terms, in your language. And doesn’t it mean someone ready to take pride in Canada, our home and native land?
Sylvie Roy lives in Regina.