The Professor

An Interview with Claude Carrier


Québec City native Claude Carrier has long roots in that province. His father, Paul-René Carrier, a respected restaurateur, was a Montréal native; his mother, the former Béatrice Vezina, was from a well-established family on the Ile d’Orléans. Claude’s life has been devoted to language and to music.

Where and when were you born?

I was born at 315 1/4 rue Saint-Joseph, here in Québec City, on December 7, 1936. At that time, the neighborhood was quite respectable but then it changed dramatically. Now it is, however, very much the up-and-coming area once again.

What do you think are the best things about living in Québec? The worst things?

Québec is just large enough to find whatever you need but not so large as to be bewildering. And perhaps most importantly, it is a very beautiful city—especially the old district, le Vieux Québec. The restoration of most of the historic buildings, some dating from more than 200 years ago, gives an appearance of old France, and this is noted and admired by visitors from around the world.

Québec is also home to a great number of superb restaurants serving food that can match some of the best anywhere in the world. And the criminality rate is one of the lowest in North America.

However, the nicest and most beautiful area of the city is always bewilderingly crowded during summer season and during winter carnival and, indeed, during any of the numerous festivals all year around. Parking is impossible and service in shops and restaurants can suffer when we are invaded by tourists.

I could also talk about the climate, but most Northeast Canadian cities have the same complaint: winters too long, summers too short.

Where were you educated?

I went through grade school and college in Québec City and then onto Laval University. I also took numerous training courses in linguistics and language teaching methodology in Québec, Montréal, and Paris.

What inspired your love of language and music?

There was always music playing in our home! Both my parents had a great love of it. My mother was often at the piano playing just for the joy of it. And of course records and the radio were much appreciated. This was in the days long before CDs and all the modern technology and I remember great quantities of fragile 78s and, later, 33 1/3s.

As for language, my father was fluent in French, of course, but also in English, and he’d learned Spanish well enough to play bridge in Caracas, Venezuela. He insisted that I learn English as well and he had me practice every time he took me along to the numerous bridge tournaments he attended in cities around the US. While he was playing cards, I explored the various places we visited and learned a lot of the language that way.

Which individuals have had the greatest influence on your life and the way you have chosen to live it?

Papa! Papa!! Papa!!!

This is natural, I suppose. But Paul Carrier gave me the example of a loving man who loved life. He had very little to do with religion, hated politics and politicians, and only believed in arts and literature and languages because they are so useful in learning about his passions: history and geography.

To my father, money was made to be spent. It was never mentioned at home and telling how much you paid or how much something cost was considered vulgar. He was happy when he had enough to take good care of our little family and to plan his next trip.

When did you decide you wanted to pursue an academic career? When did you decide your specialty?

About 1960, I was studying at Laval, and also helping with my father’s restaurant businesses. I was also giving some French crash courses at Laval during the summer.

One day my father announced: “Claude, I think it is now time for you to decide if you want to take over the restaurant business or keep teaching and studying.” I did not hesitate for one second since I was already convinced that I wanted to teach.

Long before that, at age thirteen, I had even entered the Christian Brothers Community with the express purpose of becoming a teacher. Somehow I’d thought (stupidly) that you had to become a religious brother in order to become a teacher! And I was so impressed by the teaching of two of these Christian Brothers that I decided to join their fraternity. After a year and a half of the monastic life I ran away from the community and went to college. There is a long story about that period in my life but suffice to say I’ve never regretted my choice to live a secular life.

Where have you taught?

I first taught at Laval University while studying pedagogy, then, later, in Ottawa (1963–68) for the Canadian Government. During this period I was sent to California to study and teach at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey. For a lot of reasons, this was an easy assignment and the summer I spent in Monterey was really superb for me. I had very little work, explored California from San Francisco to San Diego, and kept a diary about all that happened. And since there were no classes on Friday, every weekend was a long one. Did I mention that teaching French as a foreign language can be a great profession?

Still later, I was transferred to Montréal and promoted to director of their first language school there. I eventually left the program because I found it to be hypocritical. I thought it had been created more to calm down the Québec separatists than to really make a bilingual public service in the Canadian government. Leaving Montréal, I first went to Paris where I reunited with an old friend, and we traveled together and even lived for a time in Paris and Geneva. In Geneva I had another friend—Marie-Madeleine Rivenc—who was able to hire me as a language teacher anytime I needed a job. We then moved to Barcelona, then to Nice, and then to Cannes. It was a wonderful time until a telegram arrived from Marie-Madeleine saying she desperately needed a replacement for a young woman who could no longer deal with a group of eleven Russian students. She found these young people difficult, vulgar, and unmotivated. I took the job and quickly learned her assessment had been absolutely correct. Interestingly enough, one of these young Russians was Mikhail Gorbachev. An agronomist at that time, he would not become the president of the USSR for twenty years.

Have you taught any other particularly memorable students?

I was part of a group of teachers who taught Ken Taylor, an affable, optimistic guy with a wonderful smile who was to become the Canadian ambassador to Iran. It was he who helped six American embassy workers to escape Teheran, with false Canadian passports, during the Iran hostage crisis.

Another memorable student was a young man from Venezuela, Eduardo Maes. He was sent to my class one September as an absolute beginner; he did not know one word of French. By Christmas, he was fluently bilingual. I’m flattered to remember that I had suggested that he move to a more challenging class but he refused and almost begged to stay in my class. I never had such a gifted student during my whole career.

And this is not about teaching, but I’d like to mention a remarkable opportunity I had in the 1980s. I became a literary critic on a local TV show and not only did it allow me to acquire valuable knowledge in contemporary literature but it also allowed me to meet some of the biggest international stars passing through Québec at that time: Juliette Gréco, Gilles Vigneault, Charles Aznavour, Gilbert Bécaud, and others were invited to talk about their careers, recent works, recordings, or performances in our city. Before every broadcast, the guests went through make-up while enjoying canapés and drinks. It was during these special moments, while waiting for the stage director to place us for the cameras, that I got to know these usually inaccessible people. Since I am definitely not a groupie, I was initially uncomfortable striking up a conversation with such distinguished guests. But to my astonishment and delight, I found that most of these stars were very nice and demonstrated an eager friendliness. The most famous of them were generally the kindest and the least stuck-up. It was the less celebrated that were snobbish, standoffish, and condescending. This was for me another of life’s many lessons.

What is the most frustrating thing about the academic world?

I always had the best professional relationship with other professors but the administration could be a problem. Large universities are like governments. They are controlled by civil servants who have quickly learned to say “No!” simply to make sure their budgets balanced and more often than not just to demonstrate their authority. Most of these administrators rarely stepped into a classroom and had no real idea about the work and needs of the faculty, let alone the needs of students.

From what I’ve observed, your two greatest passions are music and language. Beyond the obvious fact that they are both things we listen to, what do you think are the common denominators of these two disciplines?

Expression and communication. People express themselves and communicate their deepest feelings and thoughts through music or words. But as a reader/listener, your vision of a book or of a nocturne by Chopin can be totally different from the vision of another person. You get to know yourself better through a great book or a great interpretation of a symphony.

For about ten years, I have been seriously studying the history of nineteenth-century romantic music. So many things happened in those years (between 1800 and 1850 specifically) in politics, science, and just about everything else.

I have been a little lazy in regard to the visual arts. I should have paid more attention and made more effort. But somehow I am naturally less attracted by what you see than by what you hear. There were very few sad moments in my life that did not completely disappear through the listening of a Mozart concerto.

Perhaps this is cliché but what advice would you have for a young person considering a teaching career?

This question is pretty hard to answer especially now that the academic world is so different than it was when I was a part of it. However, I would note that to me, teaching high school or college is more like a vocation than a career. And I’m sure that much still holds true.

Issue Twenty Two