Eric Andrew-Gee is The Globe and Mail’s Quebec correspondent.
When my aunt Caroline Andrew died in November, amid our family’s grief, I was surprised and moved by how many of her obituaries were published in French.
Caroline was being celebrated for a distinguished career as an engaged academic focusing on the intersection of urban politics, immigration and feminism, including in an eight-year stint as dean of social sciences at the University of Ottawa.
U of O is a bilingual institution, and Caroline’s publishing record in English was formidable, but she also made an indelible mark in French Canada. The obituarists noted, with something like wonder, that this daughter of an anglophone family from British Columbia should have become such a “francophile,” as they put it.
They were right to wonder. My aunt’s trajectory from member of the WASP establishment to fixture of Canada’s francophone academy was both unusual and a product of her time, one of the many things I admired about her, and an artifact of a wrongly neglected chapter in Canada’s intellectual history.
Shoss, as we always knew her, was born in 1942 and raised in Vancouver, where her father was an English professor and later dean at the University of British Columbia. (She got the nickname from a neighbour who compared her infant squalls to the challenging music of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich.)
Her mother, Margaret, came from a family that played a major role in building up a distinct anglo-Canadian nationalism. Shoss’s maternal great-grandfather, George Monro Grant, was a Presbyterian minister from Nova Scotia who advocated, against the grain in his home province, for Confederation. Before becoming principal of Queen’s University, he travelled across Canada with the railway engineer Sandford Fleming and wrote a book, Ocean to Ocean, about the promise of the new country.
George’s son William was an influential principal of Toronto’s elite boys private school Upper Canada College and a committed imperialist. William’s son, in turn, was another patriotic author named George Grant whose Lament for a Nation became a surprise bestseller in the 1960s.
By the time Shoss was in university, however, the biggest question facing Canada was quickly becoming the question of Quebec. The Quiet Revolution was on and francophone demands for respect, economic opportunity and, maybe, political independence were growing louder. After an undergraduate education at UBC, Shoss decided to jump into the eye of the storm by doing her master’s at Laval University, in Quebec City.
There she studied political science under the constitutional thinker Léon Dion (father of future Liberal leader Stéphane Dion) and improved her French by force of necessity. More importantly, she met my uncle Jean-Paul St-Amand. Their backgrounds could hardly have been more different: He was from a working-class family in Quebec’s rural North Shore. But they shared political beliefs, including an opposition to the Vietnam War.
An old clipping from Le Soleil newspaper shows them at a protest together in the mid-1960s, bright-eyed and idealistic. (“And only 10 years later, the war ended,” Jean-Paul recently quipped. “They must have been listening to us.”) In a photo-booth strip from around the same time, they look like student radical Bonnie-and-Clydes, ready to take on the world, and very much in love.
This was an era when engaging with the other linguistic solitude was a plausible, if not common, trajectory for progressive young Canadians. There was a growing recognition that French-speaking Quebec had legitimate grievances about its treatment at the hands of anglophone business and the federal government, which had contributed to the province’s poverty and cultural insecurity.
When Shoss went to work on the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which ran from 1963 to 1969, she found herself at the centre of a burning national debate about Quebec’s place within the country, the status of French, and the very nature of Canada. Some of the most brilliant minds of their generation devoted themselves to these questions, such as the poet and lawyer F.R. Scott and, of course, Pierre Trudeau.
At the University of Ottawa – where the student body was 70 per cent French-speaking at the time, her former colleague Joseph Yvon Thériault writes in his recent essay, Caroline Andrew and the Generation of Two Nations – she continued her immersion in francophone life. She and Jean-Paul raised their daughters Anne and Louise in French. (It was thanks to them that I knew the word guimauve before “marshmallow.”) Over the course of her career, she became fully a part of the francophone academic community, publishing a significant share of her work in French. Meanwhile, she worked as an activist to protect the rights of franco-Ontarians.
At the same time, trends in the rest of Canada were reducing the salience of the English-French divide. Pierre Trudeau’s policy of official multiculturalism gradually ended the dream some nurtured of a bicultural country anchored in harmony between its two “founding peoples.” In a mosaic nation, the place of francophones as Canada’s pre-eminent minority group made little sense. Why was their pale-blue tile so special?
Meanwhile, the age of awakening around Indigenous history made a mockery of the idea that the English and French “founded” Canada. Anglophone progressives of my generation are more likely to think of Quebeckers as the descendants of conquerors, rather than as a conquered people in their own right.
Shoss was an ally of newcomers and Indigenous peoples. She wrote extensively about how cities could support immigrants and worked hard with community groups to the same end. I don’t know if she ever lamented the end of the binational dream – she was so humble about her professional life that I knew almost nothing about it until after her death – but it seems unlikely. She would have seen the valorization of Canada’s diversity and Indigenous life as a good thing.
But tides of change don’t need to wash away what was valuable about the past. Today, Shoss’s decision to pursue a career in French Canada might seem baffling to many. Bridging the language divide is no longer seen as an urgent national project. If parents in Toronto or Vancouver send their children to French immersion today, it is more likely for a leg up in the job market than to make themselves more well-rounded Canadians.
Still, Shoss’s commitment to deeply understanding francophone society is no less important today than it was in her time. As The Globe and Mail’s Quebec correspondent, I’m often struck by the mutual indifference and incomprehension of the two solitudes, broken by occasional bursts of outrage.
It doesn’t have to be that way: Canada can aspire to more than a marriage of convenience between English and French. That’s why, as I mourn her death, I’ve been reflecting on the continued relevance of my aunt’s remarkable, bicultural life.