On my way to Montreal last November, I chanced on a short film in which a father grows distraught when his baby son’s first utterance is not ‘papa’ but ‘daddy’. In First Words (2011), the competition between a bilingual couple – one francophone, one Anglo – to give pride of place in the nursery to their own mother tongue mirrors Quebec’s perennial tussle over language. The husband’s predicament – at one point he itches to set fire to his child’s English picture books – was blurbed as a ‘French Canadian father’s worst nightmare’. Fabien Melanson’s eight-minute short, showcased on an Air Canada flight, gave a mischievous insight into francophone Quebecers’ deep-seated fear that their language and identity are under siege.
That sense of beleaguerment might seem misplaced amid the throngs at the Salon du Livre in the Place Bonaventure – a 1960s complex linked to a warren of downtown subterranean malls, known as the Underground City, which gives Montrealers sanctuary from sub-zero winters. The Salon, in Quebec’s cultural metropolis, is