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Cities: Montreal serves up Bilingual Fun for Kids

Adolescent moods were in full force at our house. It was time for a mother-daughter weekend away to establish those bonds that were now disappearing behind closed bedroom doors. Why not Montreal? It was only four hours by train, there was no exchange rate (yet) on our dollars, and my friend and I could show our 11-year-old girls the Quebec that we had enjoyed - the food, the fashion, the joie de vivre! It would be an education. The girls could try out their Grade 6 French. We could do some Christmas shopping and see some interesting art. We felt it was worth pulling them out of school for a day to let them see just how close we were in Ontario to an out-of-province experience in another culture.

But who could have predicted that within minutes of arriving in Montreal, we would be introducing them to a political education as well? Our weekend had coincided with a call for a massive rally, perhaps the biggest in Canadian history. Politicians who had been keeping quiet started to call for cavalcades to Quebec. As we rose on the day of departure, radio announcers were reporting that hundreds of cars and buses were already heading up the 401. Before we had even arrived at the train station to board, our vacation had become part of a political movement.

On the train, the stewards handed out coffee and peanuts as if this was any other day. But the passengers knew otherwise. They draped big Canadian flags across the train windows and attached small flags to hats. A short wave radio was brought out to listen to pre-rally announcements. When Quebeckers turned out to greet the train at Dorval, waving flags on the platform and holding signs saying "Thanks for coming," the mood quickened. The girls began trying out all the French words they knew and had my friend paint bright red maple leaves on their foreheads. They practised rolling their R's. "Too bad there's no 'R' in Non," said my daughter as she emphatically trilled out the words she might need. "Can we buy a French newspaper that's for the "Oui"? asked her friend Chase, also committed to "Non" but curious about what the "Oui" side could be thinking.

As soon as we arrived at the station, we could hear the noise of the rally and sense the anticipation. Looking down from our window at The Queen Elizabeth Hotel toward Place du Canada, we could see thousands of people on the streets below-a giant cross of humanity waving red, white, (and blue). Thousands of cheers answered Chretien and Charest as they spoke through microphones. We knew that this was a unique vacation sight for our kids. Not since I was a school-kid of 11, when my parents took me to a ticker tape parade for astronaut John Glenn in New York City, have I been part of such an emotional outpouring of feeling.

Wading into the crowd, the kids watched as people wrapped themselves in flags and shouted for Canada. A bagpiper blew into his pipes; people danced. A "oui" supporter argued with some in the crowd, telling them to go home. We signed the huge petitions spread out on the ground. "Make sure, you're not signing for the Oui," cautioned my daughter.

We were curious about how our girls would react to all of this. And more importantly, how Quebeckers would react to them? Would their hesitant French be accepted? Would the citizens be open to visitors wearing Canadian flags over their hearts or tucked into their hair? Could a family have a great vacation in a city talking about separation from Canada?

The answer to all, is "Yes." Though the city may be suffering from Referendum malaise, Quebec is still open for tourism. Though there are "For Rent" signs in many of the buildings, there's a new Biosphère exhibit in the geodesic dome on the Expo '67 site and family sessions at the hugely popular Space Camp in nearby Laval. There's the Montreal Biodôme, a unique museum of the environment, performances for kids at La Maison Théâtre, and cross-country skiing through the Botanical Garden. From the more than 150 outdoor skating rinks to the IMAX movies to the world's largest inclined tower at Olympic Park, there's a lot for kids to experience in Montreal. For our kids to see it all through the eyes of "Oui" or "Non" was an added bonus.

Of course, you can't be in Quebec for long without thinking about food. After the rally, we headed for Guy & Dido at the Cours Mont-Royal shopping complex. There the waiters made the girls order their seafood soup and French fries in French but it was with smiles, not frowns. When one of them said in French, "I am a chicken" instead of asking to eat it, everyone laughed. "This is fun," they agreed. In fact, we found almost everyone we met in the hotels, restaurants and shops to be helpful and friendly. When one of the girls upended her salad into her lap, the waiter hustled over a bowl of hot water and a cloth and helped her clean up. When the girls asked to keep two paper airplanes that had been part of a dance performance we attended, they said "Of course."

Hotel staff suggested taking the kids to the Ampithéâtre Bell indoor skating rink two blocks from the hotel and to the museums, 19 of them in fact, for which you can buy a family pass. We debated about going to the Just For Laughs museum, all about humour, or the McCord Museum of Canadian History, which has lots for kids, but with time pressing, we chose the Museum of Beaux Arts with its hands-on workshop for children on Sunday afternoons, in our case making a puppet theatre. Explaining how to make landscape for the background, the counsellors made sure that every direction was repeated in both official languages so that every kid could understand.

Visiting a city like Montreal gives an ideal opportunity to explain the Quebec way of life. "Why do the people speak French but play English music?" asked the girls who kept hearing Madonna and Green Day in the boutiques. "Why are the saints on top of the Cathedral lit up at night?" or even, "Why are the parking meters up beside the buildings?" They also asked questions about the politics, watched a "Oui" parade with curiosity, and listened to a taxi driver who talked about leaving Montreal if the "Yes" side won. Another commented that he hadn't known that so many people in other provinces cared about Quebec.

On the train back to Toronto on Sunday night, a steward teased the girls that it was a bit late for doing their homework. "We were too busy attending the rally," explained Chase. "Oh, you went to the rally, did you? he went on. "Did you know that according to Bouchard and Parizeau, you were committing an illegal act?" he joked. Later, my daughter asked how this could possibly be illegal. "We were only trying to save our country," she said.

Perhaps trips like ours helped to sway the No vote. I like to think it did. But even if it had no effect, we all came away with an impression of how many people were willing to travel from home to shout for Canada. For these two young girls, it's a hopeful imprint that should last them through tough times ahead.

Bottom Line:
The Queen Elizabeth Hotel is in an ideal location for arrival by train and for touring the sights. It's two minutes by escalator from the station and from the underground shops at Place Ville Marie and close to the Metro. "At the Queen E., Kids are King!" says a sign in the lobby. There's a special Lion King check-in, coloring books about the history of the hotel, and a new activity centre for kids open on request. A swimming pool was opened this year; our kids enjoyed it. Children under 18 can stay free. Call 1-800-441-1414 or (514) 861-3511 for family packages that start at





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