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Why the yellow line?

Updated: Feb 8, 2022

Image from "The Saint-Leonard Conflict and Language Legislation in Quebec" in Panoram Italia (2014/02/10)

Everyone who has spoken to me over the last few months has had the (pleasure?) of hearing about my master's project. At the beginning of this month, I finally got my ethics clearance from Carleton - meaning I had to fill out many forms and protocols, which were then looked over by a board who had to make sure I wasn't taking advantage of or deceiving my "participants." Eager to start, I published a website, Facebook page, printed some info materials, ordered a recorder from Amazon (no, not the "instrument"), and bought a huge pencil case at Muji because I wanted to have a professional-looking interview kit. So far, I have five potential narrators - aka interviewees-, and hopefully my first interview this weekend!

But one question I often get asked is: "what's the yellow line?"

And the answer is that it's nothing traditionally "Historically significant," nothing that has made the news, or even necessarily part of the story the narrators will tell. It's actually something from my past, and it's just that: a yellow line in the pavement. Specifically, a yellow line that ran across my elementary school's playground. I use the past tense because that schoolyard looks quite different now. The back of Dante school faced, and still faces, the back of École Lambert-Closse. When I was a student at Dante, the yellow line was all that divided us. And usually lunch monitors, too, because we all know that some paint on the ground isn't going to stop kids from doing what they want. Over the years, as Lambert-Closse gained more and more students, they expanded their building into their half of the playground. So, today, it looks more like this:

Ok, but now why the yellow line? When I presented on the early interviews I did for this project in my undergrad, I opened with a story about this line, and what it represents to me, what memories surround it. It went like this:

Growing up, I went to Dante Elementary School in Saint-Leonard, a suburb in the east-end of Montreal. Dante is part of the English Montreal School Board - the anglophone on-island school board. Dante's neighbour was and still is École Lambert-Closse, under the Commission Scolaire de Montréal; it's francophone counterpart. We faced north, they faced south, and we were separated by a thick yellow line running the length of the playground. Lunch monitors would patrol this area at morning and lunch recess making sure we didn't cross to the other side.
When I began my research on the Saint-Leonard schools crisis of 1969, I thought about this yellow line a lot; about the thrill of running over to the other side; about how even when it was buried under the snow, we knew exactly which fence pole marked the end of the English side, and the start of the French one. Why did we fight? What were the implications of this yellow line? Of course, it served a practical purpose. When the school bell signals the end of recess, it also means chaos. It's probably best to know that all your students are in one place. But when - and how - did this line go beyond the practical? This line was, suddenly, heavy.

I have one particular memory that stands out among all the others, and it was during the 2002 FIFA World Cup. I can't remember what happened, but I do remember my classmate getting into a fight with someone right on the line over their favourite teams. I remember people yelling at each other over the line. I remember being scared of going to the park behind our schools, because there were some kids who didn't like that we spoke English. More than once, my sister and I left that park after being taunted, threatened or having sand thrown at us.

I remember feeling that there was an "us", and we were definitely not welcome with "them." There's English, there's French, and you don't cross that yellow line.

Looking back, I realize how absurd this all was because the vast majority of us were neither English nor French (not that the continuous EN/FR divide isn't absurd). For many, our grandparents or parents had immigrated from Italy, Haiti, Algeria, Vietnam, El Salvador, Lebanon, Portugal, Morocco. But along that yellow line, we were divided. And suddenly, I realized, that this is my project.

The Yellow Line is about Italo-Canadians in Montreal, and the literal and metaphorical yellow lines their stories about identity, community and belonging cross. If we confront this line, and stop assuming that the bilingual/bicultural divide has to exist, will always exist, and is all that exists, we can uncover what stories lie beyond and between it. How do people who have inhabited this space in the past talk about it in their and our collective present?

How can oral historians write histories alongside narrators that acknowledge but also complicate their yellow lines? Because that's important, too. That line in the schoolyard was very real to me. The tension was real, the fear in the park was real. But it doesn't mean that I now think all francophones are evil and out to get me. Far from it. The relationships between our diverse communities are - just like any other relationship - complicated. And sometimes, things get really dark and really bad. At those points, we can either turn our backs and pretend it never happened. Or face it and be better to each other.

BANQ Saint-Léonard, manifestation de 1969

I think that I want to conclude this post with a reminder that this project isn't about perpetuating antagonisms or hate. It's about unpacking a story that I think has allowed some bad feelings to fester for quite some time. And, above all, it's about facing our future. A future that, I hope, will continue to move beyond the confines the colonial "bicultural" ideal have imposed on our communities for many years.

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