French-English Relations in McGill Independent Media

Written for a class. The experience ended up being extremely interesting so I thought I’d post my observations, even if they are completely amateur and juvenile for a real, proper ethnography. I can post the conversations if there’s further interest..

The McGill Daily, the Montréal-based university’s only independent newspaper, has a reputation that supersedes it; the publication is renowned for an ultra-liberal approach to life and current events. There is a certain culture of socio-political progressiveness and elitism as well as a sort of pop Socialism[1] that is associated with the paper.  Additionally, The Daily has a French sister-publication, Le Délit, which is published once a week as opposed to twice a week like its English counterpart and shares a similar esteem. The French-English relations at McGill have proven to be complex given the institution’s solely Anglophone character while in the heart of an overwhelmingly Francophone Québec. Assuming the integral nature of the media’s ability to both reflect and facilitate relations between distinct groups, I have decided to dedicate this ethnography to how the staffs of The McGill Daily and Le Délit interact with one another and the general presence of the linguistic binary on campus. In order to determine these relationships and interactions, I spent several days and hours sitting in the office space shared by the two groups. I studied both the environment and the individuals, paying particular attention to how the physical environment effected human interaction and how the individuals interacted with and created that particular space.

The entrance to the Daily[2] office, located in the back of the basement of the McGill University Centre, gives a rather near-perfect introduction to the proposed culture of the publications: the door is smothered with black and white photographs of both strangers and familiar faces. Canadian music icons, social activists, authors and politicians share company with the faces of past and present Daily staffers. Naked breasts of women and male genitalia are also present. The wall directly facing the door is covered with quick campus news updates for the Daily staff. There is little initial indication of a bilingual presence.  The imagery, however, does not end at the door. Upon entering the office, the amount of pictures plastered upon the large walls becomes overwhelming as your eyes struggle to focus on one particular image. The walls consist of endless black and white photos of Daily staffers over the years showing them in their various environments ranging from social events to late night editing endeavors. What is interesting is that upon observation you notice that there is a specific wall space dedicated for Le Délit only; it contains very few photographs in comparison to the remaining vast wall space which is encompassed completely by The Daily. Aside from photos of the individuals running the publications, there are also several references to Canadian culture, socialism and McGill academia: election posters, handwritten signs reading “Workers Unite!” and cut outs of McGill Chancellor Richard Pound create for an interesting visual clash.  The Canadian imagery in particular is striking and surprising given that there seemed to be more references to Canadiana in this one single office than in the entirety of McGill. There were, however, very few references to Quebec culture outside politics, as indicated by large election posters and a sign from the 1994 referendum which read: SEPARATION? NON.

In general, there is a lot of self-commemoration around the office through selectively showcasing the history of the paper. The selected imagery also portrays a particular history of McGill and of Canada from the English perspective, with the French perspective noticeably missing.

The office was generally clean and extremely empty when I visited during the day, filled primarily by several Macintosh computers. At most three people would be present around the early morning or early to mid-afternoon, often making quick phone calls, checking emails or eating lunch. There would be little interaction between staffers if their numbers did not exceed two. However once there were at least three or more present then some sort of casual dialogue would often ensue.  When I visited during the evenings before publication, conversations would revolve around the stories being covered and editorial frustrations. The office would be a complete mess, with papers thrown about, food of various sorts (primarily organic and vegetarian) would grace the tops of tables, and random items of clothing would be thrown about the floor. I was also able fit in perfectly, even as one of three non-White individuals present out of a total of around twenty. No one questioned my presence; some knew me as a former columnist for The Daily while others assumed I was working on something for the publication given my use of a Macbook (the apparent choice of the Daily staff) and my general non-chalant style. It was only when the office was packed that people would strike up a conversation with me, otherwise ignoring me if the number of individuals present was sparse.

It was interesting to note that during the most stressful of moments in the hours before the paper hit the printers, there was a relaxed environment. People walked around without shoes, ate lentil soup out of jars, and socialized with other staffers. There was also an array of music playing in the background, which ranged from the 80s’ band The Cure to popular techno to Jazz fusion. Additionally, there was there was a particular and evident fashion style: run down thrift store clothing. Plaid, stripes and layers with low-stop sneakers seemed to be the standard style expressed by most individuals frequenting the office, topped off with uncombed and intentionally messy hair.

The atmosphere would completely change when an editorial meeting, consisting of only The Daily staffers, took place. All of a sudden an air of seriousness, albeit with much relaxation, filled the previously chaotic room. The staffers would take their seats in a uniform fashion, pull out their pens and pass around the editorials to be discussed. Shoes were taken off, backs were laid against chairs and couches and hands were placed on foreheads as the individuals would begin to read what lay before them. For certain members the routine nature of the situation seemed evident in their expressions and words, asking for things to be quickly “wrapped up” while for others there was a clear sense of excitement as they prolonged the discussions with relevant but unneeded banter.

My interactions with Le Délit staffers were extremely limited as they only frequented the office once a week and sparsely if otherwise. There was, in general, very little French spoken around the office. I found that in a few instances that if a Le Délit staffer spoke to a staffer from The Daily in French s/he would receive a response in English. Le Délit staffers were also less sociable and interested in talking to me, sometimes offering a pained and forced smile if anything at all. I rarely saw members from the two groups interacting in the office; whatever little interaction I did, however, see was limited to simple administrative talk about missed calls and misplaced supplies. I also saw very few copies of Le Délit around the office, unlike The Daily which was found on the walls as well as scattered all over the floor. Le Délit became almost a mythical publication the more I frequented the office. Only anecdotes and observations from The Daily staffers created any sort of “substantial” interaction on my part with the Le Délit. My conversations with staffers, as I will discuss in my later paper, will show the very real and acknowledged disconnect, based on the language binary, between the two publication groups occupying the same space.

[1] There is not this real “We’re fighting for the workers of the world and leading the revolution on campus” sort of mentality, but there is this underlying fashionable adherence to these idea given otherwise unattractive alternatives


[2] By “Daily” I refer to both the English and French publications

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