Alienation and Belonging
March 28, 2014 § 2 Comments
An old friend visited us this weekend, and as he and I drove up the Massachusetts coast to hunt down the best pizza in the Commonwealth (Riverview in Ipswich, if you’re wondering), we got to talking about New England. Despite having lived in New England, he always feels like he could never penetrate the insularity of New England culture, and he always feels alienated here. I found that interesting, given I don’t feel that way at all, despite obviously being a transplant.
This might be the advantage of being an Anglo from Montréal. Anglo Montrealers are always at least slightly alienated from the city and dominant culture. We are a (small) minority, and we speak a minority language. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you.
I’ve always felt alienated from my surroundings. I grew up in British Columbia, very aware of the fact I didn’t belong, which came out in everything from my distaste of the wet, soggy climate to continuing to cheer for the Montréal Canadiens, Expos, and, when they existed, the Concorde or Alouettes of the CFL, as opposed to my friends who cheered for the Vancouver Canucks, the BC Lions and either the Toronto Blue Jays or Seattle Mariners. I felt similarly alienated in Ottawa. It was only when I moved back to Montréal I finally felt comfortable in my surroundings. But I still felt alienated from the larger culture, mostly due to language, even as my French language skills improved.
But, as with all things Montréal, it was never this simple. My Anglo friends and family dismissed any suggestion I might be a Montrealer, by continually reminding me I grew up out west. On the other hand, my francophone and allophone friends made no such distinction, and this is also true of my separatist friends. Go figure. Anglo mythology would have it the other way round. One of the most amazing moments of my life in Montréal came during the 2000 federal election campaign when I answered a knock on my door and found Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc québécois, with Amir Khadir, who was the BQ’s candidate in my riding (Khadir has since gone on to be the co-leader of the sovereigntist provincial party, Québec solidaire, and is currently the MNA for the Montréal riding of Mercier). Duceppe, Khadir, and I spent a good 15-20 minutes talking about place, identity, and belonging in Québec. Largely in English. Even the leader of a separatist party and the candidate for my riding didn’t dispute my bona fides as a Montrealer and a Quebecer (maybe, in part, because I assured them the BQ had my vote).
Since 2006, I have spent a lot of time in New England, before moving here in 2012, on account of my wife being American. She lived in Western Massachusetts when we met, so we did our best to split our time between Montréal and Western Mass. After all those years spending time out there, I came to feel like it was Home. Sure, I was never going to fully fit in, be a part of the scenery, but that was ok by me. And, even now, living at the other end of the Commonwealth, in the massive urban sprawl that is Boston, I feel similarly at home. The ways I feel alienated here are mostly due being Canadian. But I don’t find myself feeling excluded by New Englanders, or, really, Americans as a whole. In other words, I can deal with my alienation, it has kind of become my default way of being.
No doubt this is due to being an Anglo Montrealer and experiencing some degree of discomfort and alienation my entire life in my hometown and anywhere else I lived in Canada, tainted as I was, so to speak, by being from Montréal.