My ears were buzzing from the latest news: two female protesters had interrupted the annual anti-abortion March for Life on Parliament Hill—topless. The senior producer at CBC News Network’s Power & Politics with Evan Solomon wanted me to get both women, who were part of the feminist group FEMEN, in the studio as soon as possible. I punched in the phone number and felt a brief jolt of surprise when the woman at the other end of the line answered, “Allo?”
Reflexively, I answered in French—only later realizing the words spiraling out of my mouth weren’t English. I didn’t switch back: my source seemed more comfortable in her first language. Thirty minutes later, she and her co-protester, also a francophone, arrived at CBC.
Though the interview would be conducted in English, I continued to make small talk in French as I escorted the two women to the makeup studio. Our conversation was friendly and engaging. Later, the interview with the host went smoothly: the women were articulate and brought a fresh point of view to the debate. I walked back to my desk smiling; I must have been doing something right.
I grew up in a bilingual family in Montreal and we discussed the news in both of Canada’s official languages. In the morning, my mother tuned in to World Report on CBC Radio until my father waltzed in a few minutes later and switched to Radio-Canada’s French morning show. I went to school in French, but gossiped with my friends in English. Being fluently bilingual meant I didn’t identify as an anglophone or francophone.
It was only after I moved to Toronto at 22 that I realized how my bilingualism would shape my journalism career. Unlike many Montrealers from previous generations, I wasn’t fleeing Quebec because I didn’t speak French and couldn’t get a job; moving was my choice. As Canada’s largest city and media hub, Toronto was my one-way ticket to pursuing the career I had dreamed of—being a television reporter. If that meant choosing to work in English, then I was fine with that. But I quickly realized that my ability to speak French and my knowledge of Quebec was what made me different. It became something I wanted to hold on to, not discard.
“I used to joke that it’s taken me decades to come to the conclusion that I am both and neither,” says Bernard St-Laurent about his language status. As a veteran journalist at CBC Montreal, he co-created the national CBC Radio program C’est la Vie to introduce English Canada to stories about life in Quebec. The show allows guests to speak in their language of preference as much as possible. St-Laurent believes journalists who are multilingual have a better ability to understand and communicate with different communities.
For the longest time, I felt like I had to choose one language and one culture in order to find my true self. Moving to Toronto made me feel like a tourist in my own country—I thanked the streetcar driver in French for months. There were many differences between my home province and my new home, including the fact that hardly anyone spoke French.
I wanted Ontarians to know more about their neighbours to the east and for my reporting to bridge the gap between Quebec and English-speaking Canada. In searching for my identity as a journalist, I gravitated toward stories my colleagues weren’t familiar with and, for other assignments, I sought Quebec voices. While reporting on the federal government’s new prostitution laws, for example, I included sex workers and activist organizations from Montreal. Almost without realizing it, I was planting my journalistic feet in both worlds—something I’d long avoided.
Toronto Star political columnist Chantal Hébert believes this ability to move fluidly between French and English cultures can be a great strength for journalists. As a Franco-Ontarian who spoke little English growing up, she describes her bilingual career as a series of accidents, switching back and forth from reporting in English to French. Working in both languages enables her to explain complex political issues to both audiences. Because she understands the two cultures, she doesn’t speak from a place of ignorance nor does she mirror the audience’s prejudices.
Hébert sees a need for more bilingual journalists in Canada to fill that gap between English and French, especially when it comes to political reporting. “I feel like there is more of an appetite for journalism that isn’t us versus them in the coverage of national politics,” she says.
Like so many of my bilingual peers, I still can’t accurately explain what language I think in and translating can be frustrating at times. But I no longer feel I have to choose between languages; I don’t want to choose. Bilingualism is a wonderful opportunity to discover and share more stories. And sharing stories that matter to all Canadians, regardless of language, is why I’m a journalist.