Brownstein: Acclaimed McGill grad Adam Gopnik baffled by Quebec tuition plan

The New Yorker writer and former Montrealer was in town to deliver the Leacock Lecture at his alma mater.

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McGill’s Homecoming Celebration Weekend, held this past weekend, certainly had its joyous moments, particularly as alumni were able to touch base with former classmates. But there was also a tinge of sadness in some circles as alumni wondered how different future proceedings might be if tuition increases cut down significantly on out-of-province anglos attending McGill.

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Adam Gopnik, award-winning New Yorker writer and a 1980 McGill grad, was back in the town he’ll always call his spiritual home. Like so many others, he is baffled by the decision to nearly double tuition costs for out-of-province students at McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s, and particularly by its raison d’être as stated by French Language Minister Jean-François Roberge: that the influx of those anglo students is a threat to French.

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“People come here from all across Canada and the world because they want that French experience,” says Gopnik over an espresso downtown.

That was the case for him and his family.

“However we feel about the language politics in Quebec, I feel it’s become a settled issue: Montreal is a French-speaking city and Quebec is a French-speaking province, which I think is a very positive thing. Nobody should dispute the primacy of French here. But it’s so needless, having asserted the French character, to reassert it in a way that drives people away. Montreal is a beautifully francophone city, but it’s also a cosmopolitan city and always has been.

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“I think Quebec has been hugely successful in the last 40 years in reconciling Quebec communal nationalism and its English-speaking institutions. McGill thrives in the context of Quebec. The more open our institutions are, the stronger our democracies are. But why you would want to take something that is working and demean it for petty reasons is bewildering to me.”

Gopnik channels the words of his journo buddy Lysiane Gagnon, with whom he had lunch Saturday: “Nationalism is no longer politics — it’s just become a reflex.”

Adds Gopnik: “It’s not that they have a goal in raising out-of-province tuition rates — it just seems to be a nationalistic reflex to placate some in the hinterlands. My view of nationalism is that it can be toxic in corroding humane values. We also have to pay attention to the needs of community — as true in Quebec as everywhere.”

Born in Philadelphia, Gopnik moved to Montreal when he was 11 and was raised and educated here. His mother landed a teaching job at the Université de Montréal before becoming a linguistics prof at McGill. His dad, also a professor, was dean of students at McGill for 20 years. Like Gopnik, his four sisters are McGill graduates.

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“We had just been to Expo 67, and my parents simply fell in love with Montreal,” notes Gopnik, whose filmmaker wife, Martha Parker, is a Montrealer. “They immersed themselves immediately, reading Le Devoir and La Presse daily. The kids went to French-speaking schools. We had other choices, but we wanted to go to McGill.”

The author of a dozen acclaimed books and four plays, Gopnik has been a New Yorker staffer since 1986. He has won three National Magazine Awards for his essays and criticisms, which often focus on liberal democracies. For six years, the New Yorker had him posted in Paris, where the fluently bilingual Gopnik wrote the bestseller Paris to the Moon.

Gopnik is an unabashed francophile.

He was awarded the medal of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Republic in 2013, and in 2021 was named a chevalier in the Légion d’honneur. A Légion recognition is rare for a non-franco, but in his case it was for being an interpreter of French civilization to Americans.

“Those who come to study or live and work in Montreal accept the fact it’s French, just as when you move to Paris you want to be speaking French, but that doesn’t mean that your identity becomes French. It can’t be,” he says.

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Gopnik returns frequently to Montreal to connect with family and friends.

As passionate and long-suffering a Habs fan as anyone, he took in the team’s overtime win against the Capitals Saturday night at the Bell Centre with his musician son Luke. Expecting the worst, they were left buoyant by the victory.

Gopnik likes to say that before soaking in the words of Proust and Rimbaud, he first learned his French listening to late, great Canadiens broadcaster René Lecavalier for the spoken word and reading Réjean Tremblay in La Presse for the written word. “They turned me into a francophile.”

Gopnik’s weekend contained many of the same elements of previous visits. He dined at his fave spot in town, Little Burgundy’s Liverpool House, “which is truly one of the world’s great restaurants.” Aside from lunching with Gagnon, he checked out the Grand Salon de Guitare classical-guitar haven on Henri-Bourassa Blvd. E. He turned Luke on to Schwartz’s for smoked meat.

But he began his trip by delivering McGill’s annual Leacock Lecture Friday evening at Centre Mont-Royal, giving the highly insightful, entertaining and self-deprecating dissertation The Tyranny of Achievement and How to Defeat It. Without any notes to guide him, he talked for 45 minutes on how he tries to take up pastimes, from boxing to guitar, with which he has no affinity whatsoever.

“I always relish the fact that when I’m here, my first sentences will always be in French,” says Gopnik, whose latest book, The Real Work, is a reflection of sorts of his Leacock address.

“I am a Quebecer. Montreal is really my hometown. I feel very passionately about that. I want my son to know this very charming, eccentric mosaic of incidents that is so Montreal. It hasn’t lost its character. There’s nothing like it.”

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