Making Waves: An Interview with Guy Rex Rodgers

Photo courtesy of GRR

Guy Rex Rodgers is the founding executive director (2004-2021) of the English Language Arts Network, or ELAN; “a not-for-profit organization that connects, supports, and creates opportunities for Quebec’s English-speaking artists and arts communities.” He is the producer, writer, director and narrator of What We Choose to Remember, a 93-minute feature documentary that looks at the impact that non-Francophone immigration has had on Québec in general and Montreal in particular. He recently spoke with Accenti Publisher Domenic Cusmano about the making of the documentary and the impact on its viewers.


What motivated you to undertake this project?

GRR: The idea behind the film had been germinating since I arrived at the National Theatre School of Canada in 1980, during the year of the first referendum, after living for a decade in Australia. NTS was a bicultural school where Francophone students were mostly from Quebec, and Anglophone students were from across Canada. We shared the school as two solitudes with only limited interactions. I was fascinated by the strangely dysfunctional dynamic. Two weeks after arriving in Montreal, I met a Francophone outside the school who introduced me to French Quebec, helped me learn to speak French, and we later co-produced two children, who are now having their own children. I have spent the intervening decades living in English and French, trying to make sense of Quebec’s complex cultural dynamics. Funding for the documentary became available in 2020, the 50th anniversary of the FLQ crisis. It was timely to interview eye-witnesses of half a century of dramatic change while their memories were still vivid. Meanwhile, the CAQ government was preparing the strongest reinforcement of language laws in decades. The stars aligned to make a film about Anglos, allophones and immigrants that has resonated strongly with audiences. The original six videos became a TV series – Waves of Change: a story beyond language – broadcast on MAtv (in the original English version and a subtitled French version). Then I used material from Waves of Change plus new footage to create a feature length documentary – What We Choose To Remember – with assistance from the National Film Board. There was also a one-hour version for CBC that included additional interviews with prominent Francophones. What We Choose To Remember has had more than 40 public screenings all around Quebec and is now available on YouTube. 

More than 30 people from a variety of backgrounds are interviewed in the film. They each recount their personal experiences living in Montreal and Québec as members of the Anglophone minority community. How did you go about choosing your interview subjects?

GRR: It was a major challenge to make a documentary about English-speaking Quebeckers, a highly complex population of more than a million people. I spent months thinking about who to interview before hitting upon the idea that it is a story about waves of immigration. We started with a first wave that was predominantly British (1760-1945), which was followed by waves of increasing diversity. Then we identified the main communities that arrived during each wave, and made lists of friends and colleagues from each of those communities. We wanted a mix of men and women of different ages, and we wanted articulate people with passion and personality, so we created a large, complex tableau laying out our ideal cast and then we began inviting interesting people to participate.

The documentary was shot during the Covid-19 pandemic. What was that experience like? How did it affect production?

GRR: Because the concept for the project was based on waves of immigration, I wanted to film groups of people whose families arrived during the same period. The idea was to immerse interviewees in the period so they could discover (and reveal to viewers) which experiences had been unique to their community and which had been shared by all. A good example is the Second Wave group that arrived after the Second World War (1945-1970). Prior to Bill 101, the Catholic Church rejected untold numbers of immigrant children from Catholic (French) schools, sending them to the Protestant (English) system or the English Catholic system that had been created for the Irish. Multiple testimonials make the point that this rejection of immigrants was widespread and became a serious problem for Quebec. The second reason for shooting groups of people was so participants would engage in a conversation among themselves, triggering memories, and forgetting about the intimidating cameras. We shot most of the interviews between December 2020 and February 2021, during the first winter of the pandemic, before we had a vaccine or even knew how the virus was transmitted. It was risky for 10 people, many of them seniors, to come into a room together with a film crew and take off their masks for two hours, but dozens of participants were willing to take the risk. We took extensive precautions with ventilation and sanitising chairs and mics, and everyone was happy with the results.

Some Quebeckers worry that Quebec’s French language and culture are threatened by “the sea of English” around them. What We Choose to Remember makes the point that English is not a threat. Can both statements be true?

GRR: Quebec’s small demographic weight in North America (9 million versus 300 million) makes its language and culture vulnerable, but not necessarily threatened. The global dominance of the English language is a reality, but not necessarily a threat to Quebec. The film presents several arguments that run counter to the “Louisianization” narrative that Premier Legault and the CAQ have exploited to promote their brand of nationalism. 1) During the half-century since Bill 101 became law, Anglos and allophones have made considerable efforts to respect its spirit, learning French and increasingly having their children educated in French. 2) The globalization of the English language in business, tourism, higher education and entertainment would still be a major problem for Quebec if every single English-speaker were to leave the province. 3) Quebec is increasingly multilingual for Anglophones, allophones, most immigrants, and large numbers of young Francophones. This reality, a source of pride for many, is only a threat for people who believe Quebec should be a unilingual French-speaking society. In a referendum vote, this narrow vision would be defeated by a landslide! The worst policy for Quebec is to empower Bill 96 language hardliners to alienate Anglos, allophones, immigrants and bilingual Francophones. Quebec’s language and culture would be better served by enlisting us as allies.

Photo courtesy of GRR

What We Choose to Remember was funded by the Québec government’s Secretariat for Relations with English-Speaking Quebeckers. What has been the response to the documentary from Québec’s political class?

GRR: When CJAD’s Aaron Rand screened What We Choose To Remember he said, “Premier Legault has got to see this film!” Many other people have agreed. Sociologist and journalist Josée Legault, a well-known political commentator, had a strong response to the film. She told me that she works in both linguistic communities and knows both media very well. She has seen Francophone media portray Anglos in a deliberately negative fashion but she has also seen English-language media pay too much attention to historical (and often angry) Anglos demanding their constitutional rights. Josée Legault appreciated What We Choose To Remember because it reflects the reality of non-Francophones speaking French, educating their children in French, having Francophone friends, neighbours and spouses, and being proud Quebeckers. This reality, which is commonplace for so many of us, is still surprising to many Francophones, which is part of the reason for Bill 96. I have a good sub-titled version of the film available and am currently promoting it to Francophone journalists, opinion leaders and politicians.

How do reactions to the documentary differ between Anglophone and Francophone viewers?

GRR: What We Choose To Remember is structured around waves of immigration, so everyone whose family has arrived in Quebec since 1760 can see their reality reflected in it. The film also examines dramatic social changes since the 1960s, which makes it interesting for older people who lived those events, but even more interesting for younger people and recent immigrants who are trying to make sense of current tensions. Most Anglos and allophones who’ve seen the film wanted to share it with family and friends. The Francophone community is, in many ways, as diverse as the English-speaking communities. Mother-tongue Francophones from Acadia, Ontario, Haiti, Africa and Europe have found the film enlightening and have identified with the struggles of other immigrants to feel fully at home in Quebec. The Francophones-de-souche, whose families were living in Nouvelle France in 1760, have traumatic memories of the British Conquest and subsequent domination by English-speakers. The film has enabled some staunchly nationalist viewers to see that many “English-speakers” in Quebec have no historical connection to England. They are also not unilingual Anglos, or members of the ruling class. Even the Irish and Scottish descendants are not “British” or Anglo Saxons. The conversation with Francophones-de-souche is complex and reactions have ranged from tentatively re-evaluating traditional stereotypes to enthusiastically welcoming a different way of remembering the past and re-imagining the future.

What did you hope to achieve by producing this documentary? Have you succeeded?

GRR: My goals were three-fold. 1) To record eyewitness testimonials of important events in Quebec from the 1960s to Bill 96. We were fortunate to attract wonderfully articulate, thoughtful people to share their memories. Tragically, one of them has already passed on so I am happy we shot the interviews in 2020 and 2021. 2) I wanted to celebrate the valiant efforts that Anglos and allophones have made during the past half-century to respect the spirit of Bill 101. And also how more recent waves of immigration share a love for Quebec. I have been totally gratified by the response from those communities. 3) I wanted to enter into a constructive conversation with the Francophone majority about who these “other people” are and why they should be viewed as friends and allies, not threats and enemies. That conversation is just beginning and it will be arduous, but the initial response is encouraging.

What did you enjoy most about working on this documentary? What would you do differently?

GRR: I enjoyed the people I collaborated with to research and write the film, then meeting the dozens of people we interviewed, and then engaging in post-screening conversations with thousands of people who have come to see the film all around Quebec. I finally got to visit the Magdalen Islands and Rouyn-Noranda and to revisit the North Shore and the Gaspé Peninsula as well as many towns in West Quebec and the Eastern Townships. During the project I have visited many places around Quebec with a strong English history – still reflected in street names like Queen, Maple, and Church – although the history has mostly been forgotten or rewritten. Even in Montreal, there is a myth that everything east of St-Lawrence Boulevard has always been French. Prior to the political violence of the 1960s and 70s, areas like Hochelaga and Montreal East (around the refineries) had significant English-speaking populations and Rosemount was 30 percent Anglo (100,000 people!). In an ideal world, I would have produced the project with a larger budget so that I could have conducted more research. The story of Catholic schools rejecting immigrants is particularly important. There was a certain logic to the French Catholic system rejecting non-Catholics. The Protestant system was already an uneasy compromise between differing theologies (Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist etc.) so it was easier to accommodate different religions. It is puzzling why French Catholic schools rejected so many Catholic Italians [in the 1950s and 1960s], although others were accepted. I have never been able to ascertain the logic and am still interested in stories about how individual families ended up in the French system or the English system. If any of your readers want to share stories, I can be reached here.

What’s next for Guy Rodgers? Will there be a What We Choose to Remember 2?

GRR: There is a very good chance that there will be a follow-up film, once the outcomes of Bill 96 are clear, depending on whether I can find the money … and the energy. In the meantime, I have a couple of book projects that I am ready to publish. One is a memoir about a life-long quest to make sense of a face-to-face encounter I had with God when I was 19. It sounds weird I know, but that encounter has shaped my entire life. The spiritual dimension to life can bring out the best in us as human beings within our families and communities. Religions can also create hostile tribes that bring out the worst in us. The parallels between religious tribes and linguistic tribes have always been part of my fascination with Quebec. The other book is a set of short stories about how we determine what we believe and what is real. The questions it asks are particularly pertinent in this age of disinformation and AI-generated deep fakes.

Domenic Cusmano is the publisher of Accenti Magazine.

Share this post

scroll to top