I was born and raised in Quebec. I attended an English elementary school right up to Grade 6 and then put in one year in a French immersion program before completing high school in English. I graduated – just – with the requisite grades in oral and written French and wandered out into the world of firefighting and EMS as an anglophone who could barely function en francais.
I completed my undergrad studies in Communications at Bethany College. And while it was a lot of fun to see Professor Nelson get excited by my rudimentary use of the French language, there wasn’t a whole lot of call for the use of French in West Virginia.
Fast forward to my return to the streets as a paramedic with Urgences Sante [Montreal EMS]. I was lucky enough to have fallen under the tutelage of Sylvain Labonte, who was determined to see me become fluent in everything French Quebecois during our time together. Sylvain insisted that we speak in French on the rig. If I tried speaking in English he’d answer in French.
He shared music, culture, history, and politics – my first view of the separatist movement from anywhere other than the front page of The Montreal Gazette.
I became a devotee of Richard Seguin, Paul Piche, Luc de la Rochelliere, and Michel Rivard. After shifts, we went out to bars where everyone in the audience would sing along with performers belting out a mix of popular and folk Quebecois songs. Often, I was the only Anglophone in the building and was always welcomed as part of the crew. When Sophie and Emma came home from the hospital after their birth and respective stints in NICU, Richard Seguin was playing on the stereo in the van.
I remember asking Sylvain how I’d know if my French was improving. He replied, “First you master cursing, and then the rest will come naturally.”
Swearing in Quebec is a veritable art form. The literal translation of the French verb ‘sacrer‘ is ‘to consecrate‘ while in Quebec the word for swearing is ‘sacre.’ If you’re going to curse in French in Quebec and you’re going to mean it, then it’s likely the word you use will be related to Catholicism.
Here’s a handy sampling: baptême – baptism, calice – chalice, ciboire – the receptacle in which the host is stored, crisse – Christ, maudit – damn, ostie – host, sacrement – sacrament, tabarnak – tabernacle, and my personal favourite calvaire – cavalry.
And so it was one overnight shift working the rough-and-tumble working-class streets of the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district of Montreal, I decided that I was ready to try out some curse words. Of course, I didn’t confer with Sylvain because I wanted to surprise him with my newfound embrace for all things Quebecois.
We rolled on a ‘man down’ call inside a bar. It was hot, it was crowded and the patrons weren’t exactly pleased to have cops and paramedics interrupting their drinking and billiards. The man down had been sucker punched and hit his head on the bar on the way to ground. He was out for the count. We worked him up and were preparing to transfer him to the backboard when all hell broke loose in the place.
I decided it was time to try out my new vocabulary.
“Calvaire ostie de tabarnak!” I yelled out in aggravation after getting splashed with beer and pushed around a bit by a drunk intent on showing us how to properly c-spine a head-trauma patient.
The room went instantly quiet. You could have heard a pin drop. Sylvain was looking at me with eyes as big as saucers. The cops both put their hands on their holsters. Even the drunken wanna-be-medic froze and stared up at me.
And then the entire crowd, including my partner and the cops burst into uproarious laughter.
“Did you hear that?! That bloke [slang for Anglophone in Quebec] just tried to curse in French. OhmyGod I’m going to pee my pants. Did you hear that? Next round is on the house!”
Hmmm. Not exactly the response I was hoping for but we were able to safely evacuate the patient to the rig albeit slowly while everyone in the bar – and I mean everyone – laughed and slapped me on the back as we made our way outside. Apparently, I had contributed to making it a night no one would ever forget.
Weeks later, Sylvain and I were on a call in an apartment building and I went out into the corridor to prepare the stretcher for the patient. I got my hand caught in the locking mechanism for one of the siderails and pinched the skin between my thumb and index finger.
“Ayoy tabarnak, ça fait mal!”
Sylvain came out in the corridor with the gear and asked who else was out there with me. “Just me,” I said. “Caught my hand in the stretcher and it hurt. Didn’t mean to yell so loud. Sorry.”
He smiled. “Now that you’ve mastered cursing, everything else will come naturally.”
Be well. Practice big medicine.