On September 12, 48-year old Alex Montreuil was at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal for a CT scan. He went to the hospital cafeteria and ordered a sandwich. He says he explained to the woman making the sandwiches – in English – that he was violently allergic to tomatoes, and asked that she change the gloves she was wearing before making his sandwich in case there were traces of tomato on them from previous handling. She complied.
Montreuil was eating his sandwich in the company of a friend when a 30-something woman approached their table. According to Montreuil, she screamed in French, “Here we speak French, not English.” Montreuil says he responded, “In my city, in my country, I can speak the language of my choice.”
The argument escalated and the woman withdrew for a few minutes. When she returned, she threw a tomato sandwich at Montreuil’s face. Within moments, his face and body were swelling dangerously. The woman was arrested and may be charged with criminal assault.
The facts are not all in on this case, but two things seem to be clear. The episode began with the woman’s expression of hostility to English being spoken in her presence in a public institution, as though it were not someone’s right to do so, and it ended in an act of violence stemming from that anger.
Assuming the woman did overhear Montreuil’s warning about his allergy – and the circumstantial evidence is damning – we can conclude she meant to do him bodily harm. Her action was every bit as violent in effect as a physical assault would have been. The motive for her anger seems also to be clear: the sound of English in a public institution is not just irritating, but intolerable, a threat to her well-being, or an assault on her personal identity as a québécoise that required brutal retaliation.
We don’t know yet whether the woman in question was fully compos mentis. It is possible that she suffers from paranoia or some other mental condition. If the woman has no cognitive deficits, then this assault is more troubling than almost any I can think of in the language dispute. There have been innumerable instances in which ordinary-citizen francophones have berated English-speakers in public institutions – even those founded and largely funded by anglos like the Jewish General Hospital – and where tensions have escalated as a result.
But it is extremely rare – I actually can’t think of any examples – where private citizen A has criminally assaulted citizen B for speaking English to citizen C. The scenario suggests that English is not only a dhimmi language, but that it is somehow toxic, some kind of virus, that can not only infect a person who is obliged to speak it, but can spread through the air to bystanders.
And if she was mentally disturbed? That would only be partially reassuring. We may still justifiably wonder why it is the sound of the English language in particular that triggered such rage. For even mentally disturbed people pick up on “vibes” in the communal air. Indeed, because most of us process political messages through our intellects, translating our reactions into civil discourse of the kind that will ensure we don’t get charged with criminal assault, people who lack such impulse control may show in their shocking behaviour what many people are thinking or feeling, but not acting upon.
In my opinion, this incident would not have happened before the election. Pauline Marois, the new premier of Quebec, made a conscious decision to put non-existent threats to the French language at the heart of her campaign in order to appeal to her hardline core separatist supporters. She stirred the pot of tension between anglos and francos quite deliberately.
Marois’ every statement and gesture on language – as well as those of her political minions and advisors (I’m looking at you, Jean-François Lisée) - implies that the English language is a threat to Quebecers’ cultural survival. Of course the French language is not threatened at all, but every time Marois and her political minions insist that it is, they are deliberately creating a siege mentality in impressionable francophones, subtly endorsing hostility to even the sound of the English language, and in effect ratcheting up the possibility of exactly the kind of licence to express rage of the kind that was shown in the hospital, in those with poor impulse control.
I don’t believe this incident would have happened before the election campaign. It is my belief that the actions of the enraged woman in the hospital represent the trickle-down effect of Pauline Marois’ blame-the-English witch hunt. To Mr Montreuil that tomato sandwich was the equivalent of a BB gun used against you or me. What has this great city come to that anglos must fear violence for speaking their own language in the city they disproportionately built?