Byward Market Billingualism: An Epiphany In Three Parts

i.

As a kid, my parents always joked that, with a last name like ‘Sirois’, I had better learn French. Phonetically, it is pronounced “Seer-wah” however growing up in Toronto, my surname was butchered seven ways to Sunday by teachers, announcers at gymnastics competitions and graduations from kindergarten through to highschool. As a French Immersion student, it baffled me that people could not wrap their heads around that silly double vowel at the end. Somehow though, when I moved to Ottawa to start university, name mangling subsided.

ii.

When I was in grade school, I spoke French in class. Everything else was all-English, all the time. Occasionally I would hear people chatting on the street and get all excited on the inside knowing what they were talking about.

I was quite an adept speaker and could hold my own in conversations at summer camp where I would befriend kids from Québec by translating instructions for games and emergency procedures.

“Where are you from?” they would ask.

“Toronto!” I’d reply.

That question followed me wherever I went, waving my little Francophone Flag at conferences, job interviews and the occasional bar-room chat. Taken aback by my answer they would say, “Toronto? But you speak so well!”

I had no idea why they were surprised, but just kept chugging along as if nothing was the matter. But again, all of that changed when I got to Ottawa.

iii.

After spending so much time in the Byward Market over the last few weeks, I am starting to understand what it means to be bilingual. Most of the vendors at the Farmers’ Market are francophone and greet customers as such. Many reply with orders in French, moving into conversations about the weather or crops as carrots or beans are shoveled into a bag.

Strolling down the sidewalks between Dalhousie St. and Sussex Dr., it is not surprising to hear children chirping to parents ‘en Français’. Elsewhere in the city, it does not seem as prevalent. Sure, in Centretown and Old Ottawa South there are still French speakers, but not in the same numbers. The sheer volume of French is what forced this revelation.

The pervasiveness of French in day-to-day life may seem normal for a local, but for this francophone, native English speaker of French-Canadian heritage from Toronto, it is pretty darn exciting. Especially now that, for the most part, my last name is pronounced correctly.

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