An improved Canada

I grew up in North York in the late 1960s at a time when backyard swimming pools were so few that the appearance of a single one transformed the summer of an entire neighbourhood. As luck would have it, our next-door neighbour was the first homeowner on our street to give up his yard for a pool.

I grew up in North York in the late 1960s at a time when backyard swimming pools were so few that the appearance of a single one transformed the summer of an entire neighbourhood.

As luck would have it, our next-door neighbour was the first homeowner on our street to give up his yard for a pool.

Every spring, my father would drag our water hose next door to help fill it. In return, we had an open invitation to use it throughout the inevitable heat waves of a Toronto summer.

But the neighbourly spirit had some limits.

Like all the other kids on the block, my siblings and I were welcome to play in the pool — as long as the five of us vouched to not speak French between us for as long as we were in the neighbour’s backyard.

I never dropped a toe in the chlorinated blue water of the pool next door. Although I had a direct view on it from my bedroom window, it might as well have been on the other side of the Berlin Wall.

To this day, I remember listening to the radio coverage of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day Montreal riot that preceded Pierre Trudeau’s 1968 election victory to the sound of water splashing next door.

On the North York street where I grew up more than four decades ago, every other family was of Anglo-Saxon background. The notion that our daily life unfolded in a different language, that we did not speak English at the dinner table nor watch the same television programs as the others kids was a source of unease for some of its inhabitants.

More than a few felt that raising a family in a language other than that of a majority was subversive, that it amounted to a refusal to belong to the Toronto community and, by extension in those politically charged years, to Canada.

Some of the more open-minded neighbours worried, as often as not to our face, about the future prospects of children being raised outside the language mainstream of the city they were growing up in.

In their minds, a life not lived entirely in English would not be a full life. (The incapacity of many Canadians today to imagine that a pluralistic society can be one that uses a common language other than English is a variation on the same theme.)

As an aside, ignorance — in my youth — was a two-way street.

Some concerned relatives would routinely remind my parents of the mantra that then stipulated that to learn to speak two languages (as we were doing) was to master none.

Many of the families of my North York neighbourhood first encountered the language reality of Quebec when they travelled to Expo 67, and not all of them did.

Our pool-owning neighbours believed that by making their backyard an English-only zone, they were contributing to a common good that they could not perceive as other than crafted in their image.

They saw their profile as the only possible template for the collective Canadian identity.

Little did they know that their backyard would soon become an isolated island in a sea of diversity.

Like all teenagers, I made promises that I broke as soon as I was grownup. It was not long after I passed my driver’s test when I first failed to pick up a hitchhiker.

But the impressions that resulted from the ban on making waves in French in a North York backyard pool endured. When I wrote the French version of this column, it was a controversy over kids wearing turbans on the soccer fields of Quebec and the lead-up to the values charter debate that brought memories of this defining episode back to the surface.

I remembered that my neighbours, far from selling me on a monolithic model, had unwittingly turned me into a lifelong convert to the virtues of plural identities. I have seen no evidence since then that Quebec and Canada are anything but stronger for embracing them. With the summer finally upon us, the sounds from the poolside tell me that we have all come a long way since the muggy summers of my adolescence.

And Canada Day is a perfect time to reflect on that.

This column is an abridged updated version of a French-language column that first appeared in L’actualité magazine. Earlier this month, Hébert received a National Magazine award (gold) for her L’actualité columns. Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs columnist.

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