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Bonjour Québec. . . Alberta calling : Making Québec connection not as easy as it seemed.

by Rick McConnell

The first call got off to rather a poor start, I thought.

“We’re sorry, the number you have reached is not in service.”

Perhaps I should have taken it as a sign.

“Please check the number and try your call again.”

I couldn’t, since I had no idea which numbers I’d pushed. I was just dialing randomly hoping to talk to someone, anyone, in Québec. You’ll have to believe me, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The weekend phone campaign, coordinated to mark the anniversary of last year’s Québec referendum, was organized by the Alberta French-Canadian Association. When they did the same thing a year ago, organizers say, more than 80,000 Albertans called Québecers to urge them to stay in Canada.

You’ll recall that a year ago, as the clock ticked towards the referendum, thousands of people from Alberta and other points across Canada converged on Montréal for a huge unity rally. They went to ask Québecers to vote No to sovereignty. After the No side narrowly won, some credited the rally, rightly or wrongly, with turning the tide.

Last week another, smaller rally was held in Montréal. And on the weekend, similar smaller rallies were held in Edmonton and other cities to commemorate the No victory.

For their part, the Alberta French-Canadian Association and a group called Together for Canada thought it would be a good idea to talk to Québecers again. To that end, they handed out thousands of leaflets urging people like me to pick up the phone.

Now, I’m the first to admit I’ve been all over the map on this thing. One minute I’m going on about Québec’s vital place in Canada. Then I read they’ve taken down the English signs in a nursing home where elderly Anglophones are now wandering around confused, and I am ready to cut a willow switch and take the whole province out to the woodshed.

At the time of the referendum, I wrote a column saying I hoped they’d stay. A year later, I’m less certain how I feel. Still I’ve never been to Québec so I thought it might be interesting to talk to someone who lives there.

The campaign organizers made it seem so easy.

The information they sent me included lists of Québec area codes and three-digit prefixes for phone numbers in individual cities. After that, I was supposed to dial the last four numbers at random and talk to whoever answered. They even provided helpful suggestions for what to say.

Like this one: “Hello! My name is … And I’m calling from (city/province) where I live. I congratulate you for keeping Québec in Canada because we are stronger together. . . “

There’s more, but you get the idea.

Naturally, the messages were in both official languages. Since there are plenty of Albertans who haven’t spoken French since leaving school, they even threw in some phonetic offerings for the truly adventurous.

Somehow, though, I just couldn’t picture myself saying:

“Bon’jhoor. Ee-see (my name) duh Edmonton Al-bear-tah. Jheh voo fay lee seat debt-trah two-joor oh Caan-ah-dah. . .”

I thought I’d just give things a try in good old Al-bear-tah English. So I picked an area code, picked a city prefix and dialed away.

After a poor start the second number got me a fax machine and that annoying ring in the ear. On the third try a real, live woman picked up the phone and things got interesting.


“Hello. I’m calling from Alberta.”

She said something fast with the word “numero” in it.

“Do you speak English?”

“Non.” Then something else about a “numero.”

The louder I got the less she understood me. Maybe there’s a lesson in that for both sides?

On the next call I hit an answering machine with a message in French and English. Then I got a busy signal. Then no answer.

Finally, another real person picked up another phone somewhere in Québec City.

“Oui. Bonjour.”

“Hello. Do you speak English?”

“Why?” she asked, already suspicious.

“I’m calling from Alberta.”

She asked who I wanted to talk to.

“I want to talk to you.”

“Why?” she asked, growing more suspicious.

I explained the telephone campaign and explained that I wanted to thank Québecers for staying in Canada.

“I’ve heard about that,” she said. “But I prefer, maybe, to separate from Canada. So I thank-you and I hope you have a nice day.”

“Can you tell me. . . .”

CLICK. She hung up.

Eight calls and I’d reached out and touched one woman who couldn’t talk to me and one woman who wouldn’t. It wasn’t going as I’d hoped.

Throughout the afternoon I got more busy signals, more numbers that were “not in service,” more fax machines. Then I hit Chicoutimi.

“Do you speak English?”

“A lee-tle bit.”

After a few false starts we got down to it.

“I want to thank you for staying in Canada, but first I have to know something,” I said. “Do you want to stay in Canada?”

“Oui. I am Canadian.”

There. That’s one for my side. At least, I think that’s still my side.


  • Rick McConnell. “Bonjour Québec . . . Alberta calling; Making Québec connection not as easy as it seemed”. Edmonton, Alberta: 1996. Reprinted with permission from the Edmonton Journal.

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