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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 8: Bold youth

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 23, 2003

There ought to be a sign on the electronic glass doors at Newtrade Technologies in Old Montreal. Warning: Young staffers inside will smash stereotypes and induce anxiety in aging Quebec separatists.

Behold the cast of characters in this dizzying Quebec generation. Frédéric and Benoît, the two francophone business partners in their 20s, spend their days schmoozing with Seattle and jetting to London and Las Vegas. They're self-made and self-confident and regard Quebec independence as a relic of their parents' past.

Chinda, the Laotian-born receptionist — part of the "ethnic vote" blamed by ex-premier Jacques Parizeau for the separatists' defeat — in fact voted Yes in the 1995 referendum, and insists on being served in stores in French.

Then there's Scott, born in Ottawa and reared on bigoted views of French Canadians. Today Scott has a francophone girlfriend and works enthusiastically for Frédéric and Benoît, his two Québécois bosses.

As Quebec marks St. Jean Baptiste Day on Tuesday, this small slice of Montreal life offers an eye-opening glimpse of the province's under-30 crowd. In their own way, these 20s are rebels: rebels against their parents' generation, and their parents' old beliefs — the ones that kept Canada on the edge of its seat for three decades.

•Benoît Jolin picks up the phone in his office. "Oui?" He switches to English. "I'll be there in a minute."

Mr. Jolin, 27, and Frédéric Lalonde, 29, run Newtrade Technologies, a high-tech company that develops software for the tourism industry. Last fall, after only five years in operation, the company was snapped up by the U.S. on-line travel giant Expedia.

Newtrade's offices buzz with young computer programmers in jeans who look like they could be somewhere in Silicon Valley — except, of course, that the common language is French, and when Mr. Jolin takes a cigarette break in the company cafeteria, he puffs on Gauloises.

Both Mr. Lalonde and Mr. Jolin are the children of devoted sovereigntists. As boys, they heard stories about how their parents were forced to speak English to get served in Montreal stores, the kind of unfairness that justifiably enraged francophones of that generation.

To Mr. Lalonde, such reports are like lore out of the tales of King Arthur.

"I've never been told 'Sorry, we don't speak frog,' which is what my parents said happened to them," Mr. Lalonde said. "I was never stigmatized, so none of that stuff is remotely part of my reality."

Mr. Jolin grew up attending church every Sunday and was schooled by priests at a traditional Catholic school in Quebec City. Part of the mythology of his youth was that Quebeckers were a little people, unsuited for the cut-and-thrust world of business — in the words he remembers, "né pour un petit pain" — born for a bread roll.

"I'd hear it from teachers and grandfathers or aunts and uncles: It's okay to underachieve," Mr. Jolin recalled. "It was part of the Catholic education; God will forgive you if you were meant to be small and not disturb anybody else. It's fine not to make waves, attract attention or be overly successful.

"It just left me infuriated. Up in arms. That's exactly what distinguishes the old Quebec generation from the new one. With us, we can be whatever we want to be, and the sky's the limit."

•Anyone who's set foot in a movie theatre in Quebec in recent months will have the eerie sense they already know Mr. Jolin and Mr. Lalonde. That's because the two are real-life versions of Sébastien, one of the central characters in the acclaimed film Les Invasions Barbares by renowned Quebec director Denys Arcand. The movie, a prize-winning success at the Cannes Film Festival, is about a terminally ill Quebec college professor and his baby-boomer friends, and the generational divide that's opened up between them and their children.

The character who embodies the new Quebec is Sébastien, the dying man's son. He's a smooth, jet-setting capitalist based in London, constantly speaking into his cellphone in English. Some critics have accused Sébastien of being a creature devoid of culture; yet in the end, Sébastien uses his wits and his fortune to buy a dignified death for his father. The two men reconcile.

When Mr. Lalonde and Mr. Jolin went to Les Invasions Barbares and saw Sébastien on the screen, they were bowled over. It was as if they were watching themselves.

Much like Sébastien, they have a view of the world in which Quebeckers compete with New Yorkers, Londoners or anyone else. In this view, the purpose of a separate Quebec is far from obvious.

Don't call these two men federalists, however. Like most Quebeckers their age, they think the sovereigntist/federalist labels are meaningless. They're not turning their backs on their culture, either. To Mr. Jolin, to cease defending the French language would be a tragedy.

"To abandon this fight [to preserve French] is like blowing up those Buddha statues in Afghanistan," he said, referring to the two Bamian Buddhas dynamited by the Taliban regime in March of 2001, as part of a policy of eradicating all traces of Afghanistan's non-Islamic history.

"But instead of making it a fight between anglophones and francophones, we should use two languages to be a microcosm for what's best about our country — something the United States doesn't have.

"What we're doing here is teaming up two cultures, French and English, so that Quebec products can be known around the world. We didn't put maple syrup or a fleur-de-lis on our products, but our innovation was created by Québécois."

Mr. Lalonde and Mr. Jolin are the products of pitched battles waged before they were born. They're reminiscent of young women who've benefited from the struggles of their feminist elders and take their freedoms for granted.

Mr. Lalonde and Mr. Jolin were born around the same time as Bill 101, Quebec's famous French Language Charter, which turns 26 this year. The two grew up under the law's protective cover, unburdened by many of the insecurities of their parents' generation.

"We didn't inherit the psychology of being colonized by the British," said Mr. Lalonde, his company's chief technology officer. "All that happened before us."

Around these stylishly renovated offices, software engineers from all over the world use French as the common language of work. Among the bilingual, which is most of them, conversations free-flow between English and French like a jazz duet.

At 10 a.m. one recent day, Mr. Jolin was conducting a conference call with Expedia staff in Tampa and Atlanta; everyone around the conference table in Montreal listened and threw in comments in English about "connectivity," "configurations" and "strategic value."

The call ended, the Americans hung up, and the men and women in Montreal turned to one another. <ic>"Et puis?" <nm> <ic> <nm>someone said. Without missing a beat, as if everyone decided simultaneously to switch channels to another station, they all joined in a rapid-fire conversation in French.

•Sitting at the heart of the ebb-and-flow at Newtrade is the resident keeper of the separatist flame — Chinda Phommarinh, the cheerful, multilingual receptionist. Ms. Phommarinh was raised in a traditional Laotian family in Montreal and did what any self-respecting rebellious youngster does: She dyed her hair blond and got her tongue pierced.

She also adopted the ways of Quebec youth. Growing up in Quebec since she was 3, she saw reports on TV of massive pro-Bill 101 rallies. She got the message: French mattered.

Like nearly all immigrants, Ms. Phommarinh was already required to attend French school, where her classmates were Cambodian, Haitian and Italian and her best friend was Portuguese. French was the obvious language among the friends. Still, those street protests over language affected her.

"I said to myself, if this is making news on TV, it means that the Québécois take it to heart. I realized, I have to make an effort."

When Ms. Phommarinh — still sporting the tongue stud, but back to her natural black hair — answers the phone at Newtrade with her Québécois-inflected accent, it's impossible for a caller to know she's not from the province's heartland. The 26-year-old is the living incarnation of Bill 101's most unassailable success, the conversion of immigrant children into functional French-speakers through the education system.

Ms. Phommarinh insists, when she shops downtown, on being served in French.

"I want to change the clichés that immigrants didn't want to speak French. I grew up here. For me, Quebec is as French as Ontario is English."

As old-stock francophones like Mr. Lalonde and Mr. Jolin lose their nationalist ardour, new Quebeckers like Ms. Phommarinh might be separatism's best hope. She voted Yes in the 1995 referendum on sovereignty.

"I'm not 100-per-cent Québécoise. I have my culture from Laos, I'm not pur laine," Ms. Phommarinh said. "But I grew up here and it's what shaped me. I'm not as attached to Canada as to Quebec, because this is where I grew up."

•Standing by Ms. Phommarinh's desk with his laptop is Scott Martin, 32, one of Newtrade's program managers. Mr. Martin was raised in Ottawa with what he acknowledges was a narrow-minded view of French Canadians.

"When I was growing up, my idea [of Quebeckers] was that they were Pepsi-drinking, Jos.-Louis-eating, plaid-shirt-wearing, maple-tree-chopping people," he said. "I really didn't have any idea about the entrepreneurship going on, or anything that could change the world that was coming out of Quebec."

His narrow view, perhaps not so different from the prejudices and preconceptions many Canadians have about one another, came clattering down two years ago. He landed a job with Mr. Jolin and Mr. Lalonde and, armed with 10 years of French immersion, moved to Montreal.

He now has francophone girlfriend and he made francophone friends. Mr. Martin discovered one of those underreported facts, that Montreal is a de facto bilingual city.

"It's true you'll run into a few brick walls, but most of your daily life is going to be lived in harmony with everyone else," he said. "There is a good equilibrium in the city."

Finally, reporting to work every day at Newtrade, Mr. Martin cleared his final hurdle over the wall between the solitudes.

"What we're doing here is groundbreaking," he said. "The fact I work for a company run by two young guys from Quebec, who sold their company to Expedia, a mass conglomerate from the U.S — that's pretty amazing." ROBTv Workopolis