In the Right Place with ELAN
Published on August 19, 2022
“In the Right Place” is a blog series of the COM-Unity project featuring conversations with our partner organizations. In each conversation, we try to get a sense for how belonging takes shape in their specific communities, and how the places we inhabit shape us—and how we, in turn, shape them.
Part 2: The Place of Memory
with Guy Rex Rodgers, Project Manager of the English Language Arts Network’s (ELAN) COM-Unity initiative
Today’s conversation is with Guy Rex Rodgers, the founding executive director (2004-2022) of the English Language Arts Network (ELAN) and current manager of ELAN’s COM-Unity partnership initiatives. ELAN, which has been in operation since 2004, offers a variety of diverse programming and services that support artists and arts communities in Quebec.
Our conversation with Guy focused on the way that ELAN’s mission and work is rooted in agitating for a deeper and more complex sense of place, memory, and history, one that includes all Quebecers regardless of origin. This is evident in projects that they have taken on in partnership with COM-Unity: Their second-year project, Waves of Change (and the subsequent documentary, What We Choose to Remember), framed Quebec history through the memories of English speakers who migrated to the province during different historical periods. Their third-year project, Waves of Change: Reimagining Quebec, a documentary for CBC, will look toward the future of Quebec and the tensions between the need to preserve the French language, and the need to create a thriving province in which all can feel a sense of belonging.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
C-U: This blog series is all about how place factors into our sense of belonging, so let’s start off by taking that literally! Where, geographically, does the magic happen for ELAN?
GRR: There are two buildings on Sainte-Catherine Street that are kind of the heart of the cultural community. There's the Belgo Building, which is mostly visual artists, and right next door, one building further west along Sainte-Catherine, is the Alexander Building; many Francophone cultural organizations are in there, and ELAN has been in there for years. When I used to sit on the ground floor and have a coffee, half of the cultural community would come by and say hello! It's a great place to network and schmooze. And it's just a hop, skip away from all of the funding bodies: the new NFB [National Film Board] office is in there as well. It's a very convenient place to be.
When I arrived here [after a decade in Australia] in 1980, the conventional wisdom, and this is still often the case now, was that Saint-Laurent Boulevard divided Montreal between east and west and the French lived on the east side and English lived on the west side. The Olympic Stadium was a much more active venue back in those days, and Anglos might go to a concert there, or they might go see a game, but as soon as it got dark, you know you got to get back to the west side of town where it was safe! So that was one myth about the geography of Montreal.
C-U: You’re talking about a myth about this place, which, along with memory and history, form the topic of your documentary film, What we Choose to Remember. Can you talk about how you approached this topic through the format of your film?
GRR: One of the reasons that I wanted to do group interviews [in the film] was that there was something about the commonality of experience. In What We Choose to Remember there is an interesting balance between personal and collective memory, and I wanted to bring in experiences that people shared, saying “Yeah, that's me, I've experienced that.” Or, maybe, “My family wasn't exactly representative, maybe my particular ethnic linguistic community was not precisely represented, but we arrived during the same period, and we shared experiences with people who arrived in a particular wave of immigration.” So, by dealing with waves of immigration, it's also the collective aspect of what groups were dealing with at a moment in history. What was the socio-economic political environment to be arrived in? What were the expectations? What was the social contract? And whether somebody was personally represented—because it's all done in waves—everybody can identify with one of the ways people were received and welcomed and how they adapted.
When I arrived here, I didn't speak French but I picked it up reasonably well. But I was surprised how few of the people my age who had grown up in Quebec could speak French, I thought that's really weird. For me, coming here was an opportunity to learn a new language, and French is a great language. But it was only years later that I realized what a traumatic upbringing these kids had had [during the Front de Libération du Québec crisis], they had a lot of threats at their schools and in their neighbourhoods, and people were yelling “Get back to Ontario.” So, they had no desire to learn French and to fit into the majority community. And I tried to convey that in the film, that there was a dark frightening period through the 60s and 70s and even into the 80s and 90s. And the people who chose to stay here were very conscious and expected transformations to their lifestyles. And of course, [something] like 500,000 Anglophones left.
C-U: You founded ELAN in 2004. What were some of the challenges you faced given the cultural context at that moment in time?
GRR: When we started, years ago, arts and culture was looked upon as a frill, as a totally non-essential aspect of the [English-speaking] community. But within 10 years, I managed to move arts and culture into the top three priorities of the community [so] that people understood that it's all about identity, expression and retention. ELAN was about doing all those things and creating a large network for artists crossing into other disciplines, and then influencing the larger agenda of the community to determine funding.
And then, when the Secretariat [the Sécretariat aux relations avec les Québecois d’expression anglaise] that is funding the COM-Unity projects was established, they realized that Anglos have a low sense of identity and belonging. So, they gave ELAN some money to identify sources of funding, to document them, to provide training courses and to monitor results of the people who apply. And that's been hugely beneficial.
C-U: You mention the low sense of identity and belonging felt by English speakers in Quebec as being impacted by history and memory—which is basically the thesis of What we Choose to Remember. What did you want to contribute to the collective memory through that film?
GRR: Towards the end of the film, there's that poignant scene with Catherine from Baie-Comeau, when she said, “You know, there were a lot of Anglos here originally, and I really don't know where they went.” And there's no bitterness on her part, just a sense of loss, it’s just really touching. And obviously, they haven't talked about it in her family or schools and communities. Some of these histories have not only been obliterated—they've also been completely forgotten.
So, the film for me was about all of that; it was about recognizing how much Anglos have contributed to Quebec, and the complexity of the so-called Anglo community, because, again, in the film, we talked about non-Catholics, non-Christians, who were rejected from the Catholic school system, that is not something that is acknowledged very widely in the Francophone community, not something that is talked about a lot in the Anglo or Allophone community, and it's an important piece. I'm discovering all these little bits of history and these causes and effects and how communities end up speaking one language and how animosity evolves between different communities. I just wanted to make a film showing that Anglos are not this monolithic bunch of unilingual, anti-Quebec Anglo Saxons, it's much more complicated.
C-U: Looking forward towards the future, can you talk about what you’re going to be addressing in your Year 3 project, and in the future of ELAN itself?
GRR: I'm just finishing off the documentary [project for Year 3, entitled Waves of Change: Reimagining Quebec] and the central theme of that is the conflicted soul of Quebec, and I embody that in two questions. One is, “Do you think French in Quebec is threatened?” And almost all Francophones would say yes. And I would perhaps say, more accurately, it's vulnerable as an island of 8 million in an ocean of 360 million. It's certainly vulnerable! Everybody will agree to that. However, the next question that I use in the documentary is “Do you want your children to be bilingual?” And almost every Quebecer will also answer yes to that question. And that is the central contradiction: how do you create a world in one part of the Anglo ocean without drowning Francophone culture, and that is the central conundrum.
But when people ask me who is ELAN for, I say, for anybody who uses English as part of their work. You could be a Francophone who occasionally writes a poem in English or hangs out with English artists, or you could self-identify with English-speaking culture, and English-speaking artists; we're trying to be as inclusive as possible.
And the flip side of that, I always said from the beginning to anybody newly arriving in Quebec, if you plan to stay here, learn French. The goal of ELAN has never been to be an Anglo island. We want to expand the community of Anglos and Francophones to build those bridges and to try to break down the previous stereotypes and the notion of solitudes, which were never real, there were always bilingual people speaking to one another in the past. Now that, according to Statistics Canada, 95% of Quebecers can carry on a conversation in French—maybe not with particular elegance or the correct accent, but they can at least make themselves understood—so, given those tools, we should be communicating better. ELAN has always been about trying to facilitate that.
Information about ELAN’s Year 3 COM-Unity project can be found on the COM-Unity site here and on ELAN’s site here. Their documentary can be found here.
Remember to follow us and ELAN on social media to stay in touch with our Year 3 projects!
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And check out our events calendar for all public events related to NEXT and our other partner projects!