“Bonsoir et dors bien”, is how my mother ended her nightly phone calls with her parents. These were some of the few French words I ever heard her speak, which was strange as French was both her parent’s mother tongue. Why did we only speak English?
René Raguin my grandfather, was from Fleurier, Switzerland and came to Canada to teach at the French Protestant school in Pointe aux Trembles, Quebec. He later taught in Trois Rivieres and finished his career at Baron Byng, a school of the English Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal. He also taught teachers how to teach French at McGill University’s summer school.
Beatrice Bruneau met René Raguin when they were both teaching at the Pointes aux Trembles school. This was the one French Protestant school in the Montreal area. Grannie as we called her, descended from French Canadian stock, although born in Green Bay Wisconsin. Her father Ismael Bruneau was a French Presbyterian minister. Her mother Ida Girod was a French speaker from Switzerland and also a Protestant.
René spoke English fluently but with a heavy accent. He always used English when talking with us, his grandchildren and we called him Grandfather. I always wondered why he never communicated with us in French as a French teacher. One much older cousin Don Allchurch, always referred to him as Grandpère as he did speak to him in French.
Beatrice’s father Ismael Bruneau, was “pure laine”, French Canadian through and through. His early ancestors arrived in Quebec from France in the 1630s. His family of Catholics converted to Protestantism in the 1850s and that is where the English crept in. Ismael wasn’t thrilled to speak English as he wrote to his youngest sister Anais, “I write to you in English, dear sister, not to show you I can write a few words in that barbarous language, but for your good as well as mine, for practice makes perfect.” Many of Ismael’s siblings moved to the United States, spoke English and married English speaking spouses.
French was spoken in his home but Ismael’s children all went to English Protestant schools as the French schools were all Catholic and they didn’t even allow Protestants to attend. In the family, religion trumped language. Most of his children also married English-speaking people. His two sons continued to speak to each other in French.
My mother grew up in Dixie on the border of what is now Lachine and Dorval. It was then an English community. Because her father Rene Raguin taught for the English board they didn’t have to pay school fees and so attended English Protestant schools. The children didn’t want to speak that other language. Some evenings her father would say that only French would be spoken at the dinner table. The children wouldn’t say a word and only eat what they could reach.
The Scots and Irish immigrants who were my father’s family settled in Toronto and spoke only English. I don’t remember him speaking French to anyone. He always regretted that he couldn’t speak French. He too went to English Protestant schools.
We were schooled before French Immersion and though there was some talk about sending us to French Schools, they were still all Catholic and not a choice, so we also attended English Protestant schools.
So in a generation, the French family became English. We didn’t call my mother every night but as we left after a visit she had a new English saying, “Safe home.”
A Short History of the Bruneau-Girod Families: Ida Bruneau Ste. Agathe des Monts, Quebec May 1993. Forbes Publications Ltd. Calgary, Canada.
My sister remembers the phrase as “Bonsoir et dors bien Maman” but I said sometimes she was talking to her father.