In search of the Fat Damned English Ladies from Eaton’s

Pierre MacDonald, August 1989 - credit to the Montreal Gazette
Pierre MacDonald, August 1989 – credit to the Montreal Gazette

Here’s an example of a contemporary Quebecois myth you’ve likely heard before:

At some point in the past Quebec Anglophones were openly hostile to Francophones and insisted that Francophones speak English whilst conducting business transactions. This supposedly widespread phenomenon was illustrated with the image of a rotund middle-aged woman working behind the counter at Eaton’s, speaking the Queen’s English and insisting anyone who wants her service should do the same.

I’ve heard this story and variations of it for as long as I’ve cared to have an opinion on Quebec independence. The story is often brought up to suit various purposes, either as demonstrative of the ‘Westmount Rhodesian’ stereotype of old-school Anglophones, or to demonstrate the relative success of Bill 101 in ensuring Francophone dominance in our day-to-day lives.

Some, including Mathieu Bock-Coté of the Journal de Montréal, refer to the ‘grosses madames de chez Eatons’ not only as though this racist, sexist, characterization were an evident historical fact, but additionally claim the phenomenon of Anglophones refusing to do business in the language of the local majority is alive and well today.

If you have any common sense, you’ve doubtless thought this story was a touch far fetched.

It certainly never made any sense to me. Why on Earth would a business of any size prohibit their staff from speaking both official languages? Doing so would be a disastrous policy. Moreover, why would any business openly antagonize Francophones by hiring people such as this aforementioned stereotype? If I ran a business and discovered one of my staff was conducting themselves as such, they would promptly be fired. Any manager or business owner with a modicum of common sense would do the same today inasmuch as fifty, seventy or one-hundred years ago.

Let’s keep something in mind: Montreal has been a primarily Francophone city since before Confederation. The last time the relative populations of Anglophones and Francophones in Montreal were even close to parity was back before the Rebellions of the late 1830s. In the last 100 years, the largest the Anglophone population ever was (in all of Quebec), was 880,000 in 1971.

It is entirely unrealistic to imagine at any point in time in the last 100 years of our city’s history that saleswomen working in the city’s major department stores were instructed to not speak French or were hired specifically because they were unilingual Anglophones. It goes against the very nature of capitalism and basic customer service practices. It’s even more unrealistic to imagine there was some kind of concerted effort amongst the Anglophone minority to snub Francophones and/or antagonize the majority population to prevent them from shopping on Sainte-Catherine.

And yet, despite the fact that the stereotype of the fat unilingual Anglophone lady doesn’t jibe well with reality, there’s the very real fact that it is taken as historical truth and that the entire story is utter bullshit.

Here’s what really happened:

In January 1989 then provincial industry and commerce minister Pierre MacDonald granted a La Presse journalist an hour-long interview, during which time the reporter asked what MacDonald thought of the language debate. At the time the Quebec Liberal government had just invoked the notwithstanding clause to uphold its ban on bilingual signs, and linguistic and nationalist/federalist tensions were running high.

MacDonald replied candidly that he was sick of the debate.

As it was reported in the Montreal Gazette shortly thereafter, and again in the May 1st 1989 issue, MacDonald was said to have called some Eaton’s clerks “fat, damned English ladies who can’t speak a word of French” (for those unaware, Eaton’s was a major national department store chain that went under around 1999-2000; in 1989 their Montreal flagship store was located at University and Sainte-Catherine and was one of the premier shopping destinations in the city). The Gazette article was itself referring to comments made by MacDonald in the La Presse interview from earlier that year. An opinion piece in La Presse dated to January 17th 1989 by Lysiane Gagnon excoriates the minister for having repeated the ‘sentiments of his colleagues who, evidently were wise enough not to repeat the racist and sexist statements of some their own constituents.’

In the context of the question “what do you think of the language debate?” MacDonald had answered that he was personally sick of it and that the phrase “fat, damned English ladies from Eaton’s who can’t speak a word of French” was an example of the language used by extremists on both sides of the debate (meaning both the Francophone and Anglophone communities had linguistic extremists who were either unwilling to speak with the other camp and/or felt excluded by them).

The Gazette’s ombudswoman in 1989, Stephanie Whittaker, felt it was necessary to clear the air on June 26th 1989 when she pointed out the inconsistency in the Gazette’s own narrative in an article entitled “Small inaccuracies can gravely distort news stories”.

Tell me about it.

What’s embarrassing for the Gazette is that they reported the inaccuracy, as fact, in MacDonald’s obituary, published on July 10th of this year.

The same mistake was repeated by La Presse writer Émilie Nault-Simard in her October 25th 2013 article “Les grosses Anglaises de chez Eaton.”

Too bad for Pierre MacDonald. Not only was he often misquoted as the source of a statement that did not reflect his own views, but by referring to this clichéd stereotype wound up inadvertently solidifying its place in our common memory. So much ink was spilled attacking the minister for his remark the fact that he wasn’t speaking of his own experience, nor even of any kind of recorded experience, somehow became unimportant.

And now, for some people, it’s accepted as a historical fact. Nault-Simard, writing for La Presse, even attempts to bring the mythological fat English ladies into the fold of Quebec history by arguing the Quiet Revolution was in part a reaction against them (and in additional historical revisionism, Ms. Nault-Simard refers to the Fédération des femmes du Québec, founded by Thérèse Casgrain and critical of the minister’s alleged comments on the grounds of the inherent sexism, as an Anglophone women’s group!)

I say again, there were no fat unilingual Anglos at Eaton’s. The Gazette reported it couldn’t find any on January 15th 1989, and letters published in La Presse on January 26th 1989 indicated at least three Montrealers who, by their own admission, couldn’t find any either and had always been served in French when shopping at Eaton’s.

Both Pierre MacDonald and Lysiane Gagnon were referring to a cliché, a stereotype, a mischaracterization and a fabrication that existed before MacDonald’s 1989 La Presse interview.

But a cliché isn’t a historical fact no matter how many people believe it.

What’s interesting to me is how local media dealt with the obvious miscommunication. For La Presse the problem was that an important cabinet minister felt such an obviously racist and sexist comment would in any way be representative of mainstream Quebecois sentiment. Gagnon objected to the sexist and racist stereotype on the one hand, then attacked MacDonald for not realizing there’s demonstrable proof French was the overwhelming language of commerce in Montreal, as it was then and as it is now. According to Gagnon, the same day MacDonald referred to the ‘fat damned English ladies’, the Conseil de la langue française issued a report indicating French was first in the shopping malls, department stores and small businesses across the city. It should be noted that Gagnon’s piece, entitled ‘La vendeuse et le ministre’, defends Anglophone linguistic rights, attacks the Bourassa government’s Bill 178 as being unnecessarily damaging and further adds that Bill 101 was more flexible in terms of the languages used on commercial signs.

Gagnon is a noted promoter of Quebec’s language laws.

For their part, the Gazette seemed incapable of choosing a narrative. At first they reported MacDonald as having made the remarks himself as an indication of his own opinion, seemingly approving of Bill 178 as necessary to protect the French language against Anglophone linguistic extremists under the employ of the T. Eaton Company. Then the Gazette corrected their earlier story and appropriately explained MacDonald was not expressing his own views. Then, inexplicably, the Gazette returned back to their original story, and continued reporting it as fact and as demonstrative of MacDonald’s personal views until the minister corrected them in May of 1989. It would take until June of 1989 for the Gazette to get their story straight, and only after the paper’s ombudswoman went to the extraordinary step of issuing a fairly comprehensive explanation of the prolonged communication breakdown.

And even once this was done, the story had been so widely taken out of context it even made its way into Mordecai Richler’s controversial ‘Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!’ as, you guessed it, an indication of MacDonald’s personal feelings.

So to recap: there were never any ‘fat damned English ladies at Eaton’s who couldn’t speak a word of French’, it was all one big game of broken telephone.

And it’s unfortunately become an indelible stain on the historical record, accepted as a real example of things used to be.

Special thanks to Kevin Areson for helping with the research.