A day in the life

Learning English ain't like it used to be. In the mid-60s, Sherbrooke preschoolers had no French channels to choose from on morning television. Neither Radio-Canada nor the local Télé-7 were broadcasting before noon. English channels, on the other hand, were abundant. CBC, CTV, ABC, CBS and NBC were all up for grabs in the morning.

Captain Kangaroo, Chez Hélène and The Friendly Giant rapidly became my personal English trainers. The words "Here we are inside..." are forever engraved in my mind. I don't really know what not being able to understand English feels like.

I remember experiencing dismay when being asked by my Mother if I understood what was being said on television. She obviously didn't have a clue; I did. English was just there... everywhere... it was overwhelming in a very American way; that's how it always has been for me.

In second or third grade, having learned to read and write in French, I went to the tobacco shop and got myself a copy of Captain America. Boy!... was that ever frustrating!... I couldn't understand a thing. English spelling made no sense to me.

As a teenager, I took every opportunity I could to expose myself to English, enrolling in linguistic exchanges with students from Upper Canada College in Toronto and joining Katimavik. I eventually topped it off with an undergraduate degree from Bishop's University.

Nowadays, kid programming on French television in Québec seems almost limitless. Both my daughter and my son are totally oblivious to what's happening on English channels. The local cable provider, Vidéotron, exploited that reality in a commercial a few years back.A boy comes to his father watching TV and asks in French: "Dad?... how do you say 'J'aime mes amis' in English?" His eyes glued to the screen, the father replies to his dumb faced son in a hesitant tone: "Jaymiss maze aymiss?".Well... that could've been my kids' answer... Sigh...

I've recently found a way to stir some of my kids' interest for my second language. Up until now, all screens (television, Nintendo and leisure Web surfing) at home were off limits from Monday to Thursday. Television is now OK in English, after homework has been properly done. Let's see how that goes...


1995 revisited

Flash back to the evening of October 30, 1995, Jacques Parizeau states: "True, we've been defeated... at the very heart of it, by what? By money... and ethnic votes... essentially."

That night, Parizeau made a monumental faux pas by alienating a significant portion of the province's population. He missed his rendezvous with History. Everything was within reach for him to make a memorable speech.
We came so close... we came so close!... It's mind boggling... it's heartbreaking...

Do I need to stress that we've been faithful to the democratic process? Well... the "No" side hasn't... it got round our laws and spent more than it should. Is this acceptable?... of course not!... Would the same be acceptable from us?... of course not! All along the way, we've been boasting the legitimacy of our proposal; let there be no misunderstanding on the righteous path we've chosen.

Do I need to emphasize that we're a vivid democracy?... that's one thing we can be proud of. Participation to the referendum exceeded 93%!... a record in our young democratic system. Even the rest of the country can't top that. Let it be remembered that the Québécois took this matter seriously, gave their input and accepted the verdict peacefully.

Our proposal's been defeated... true... at the very heart of it, by what? By money... Anglo and ethnic votes... essentially.

The sad truth is that tonight's results outline the gulf there is between Francophones and non-Francophones. Now... let it not go unnoticed that some constituents of our Anglophone and cultural communities have voted with us... and as I stare at you, I see some of them... let it not go unnoticed that these constituents recognize the value of a different and vibrant culture in our part of the world. I thank them... we thank them!

Still... an overwhelming majority of non-Francophones voted "No". And this needs to be addressed properly if we want our project to have full legitimacy. Québec was left out in 1982 when the constitution was patriated. Can we reasonably pretend to a sovereign Québec without some significant support from important communities? I think not!...

One single thing stands out... loud and clear. I don't expect non-Francophones to ever embrace Québec's sovereignty with the same enthusiasm Francophones do, but more can be done to reach out. Think about it... this project is too important to do it without more of each of us... we have to work together.

Until next time!...
Great politicians bring people together.


Virtual encounter of the Canadian kind

The Web is like the Far West, a humongous hodgepodge of whatever thing (n'importe quoi). On-line forums are a rich platform for all types of confrontations, be they aggressive or constructive. Some of it's great! Some of it's not. Here's a little gem I dug up in the aftermath of the 2008 Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebrations.
  • 11:14 AM, Poster from Toronto writes: If the provincial government coughed up a significant amount of the money, then basically that money came from Alberta, BC and Ontario. Glad to know they're using our tax dollars so wisely.

    And for this summer's big celebration in Quebec City, I think there should be a giant banner reading: "The Taxpayers of Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario cordially invite you to the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Quebec's founding."

  • 12:30 PM, Poster from Montréal writes: Like all Canadians, Quebecers pay their taxes. They roughly send $40B to Ottawa each year. Quebecers face one of the highest taxation levels in North America. They do have richer social programs and spend their dollars differently than the rest of the country, but it does not justify your statement.

  • 1:19 PM, Poster from Toronto writes: Oh pul-lease... don't make me laugh. Ottawa must have used a fire hose to spray that much money in Quebec. Perhaps the reason your taxes are so high, despite enormous equalization payments from other parts of the country, is that your economy is in the toilet and Quebecers are not noted for their strong work ethic and ingenuity. Near as I can tell, French Quebecers spend most of their energy harassing Anglos and visible minorities. Out there with their little rulers measuring signs. Ahhh, la belle province.

  • 1:38 PM, Poster from Montréal writes: You can laugh all you want; I'm not going to insult you.

  • 1:45 PM, Poster from Toronto writes: Oh Sir, not to worry. We Anglos aren't going to cut you off and leave you without the monthly cheques. Doing so would have you vying with Haiti for the poorest jurisdiction in the Western Hemisphere.

  • 2:40 PM, Poster from Montréal writes: It is sad that you are making this an Anglo vs. Franco thing.

  • 2:47 PM, Poster from Toronto writes: Sir, how sad that small-minded separatists in your province spit at and yell at English people on your 'national day of celebration'. If that doesn't provoke a sense of "Anglo versus Franco" than I don't know what does.

  • 4:09 PM, Poster from Montréal writes: Of course! And you are going through the same mental process by insulting all Quebecers with your posts.

  • 4:29 PM, Poster from Toronto writes: Sir - sometimes the truth hurts. Do you really want to try to argue with me that Quebec doesn't leach off the rest of the country tax-wise through transfer payments? Do you have compelling evidence that Quebec is a 'have' province? Do you really disagree with my assertion that basically the taxpayers of Alberta, BC and Ontario will be, in the end, picking up the cheque for your big party this summer? Really?

  • 5:14 PM, Poster from Montréal writes: Sir, each year, Quebec receives $19B in transfer payments and sends $40B to Ottawa. These figures are partial, but studies generally show that Quebec does get a little more than it chips in. My point is that its "have not" status is grossly exaggerated; nothing that justifies the kind of abuse I read in these forums. It would certainly not be the poor state you are depicting if sovereignty were to be achieved. I am not saying that you are wrong, nor right; it is hard to tell. I simply think most Quebecers deserve more respect than many Canadians are willing to pay them.

  • 5:43 PM, Poster from Toronto writes: Sir, I think my comment got lost in cyberspace. In any case, the reality for both Quebec and Ontario is that this century belongs to Western Canada. All things are cyclical and now it's their turn to hold all the cards. Something that will be very hard for our respective provinces to swallow.

    Deep down I think that without the French, we English Canadians are more or less just polite Americans and without us English Canadians, you French Quebecers would be very alone in a very cold, unforgiving English North America.

    Differences should be celebrated - we have two amazing founding cultures and many more cultures have come to be a part of this country in the meantime. The real enemy is stupid, selfish, self-interested politicians who would care to tear the country to pieces out of spite.
I wish a great St. Patrick's Day to all my Irish friends.


Québec's ethnocentric nationalism - Part 2

Late in the evening of October 30, 1995, Jacques Parizeau states: "True, we've been defeated... at the very heart of it, by what? By money... and ethnic votes... essentially." French and English media across the country are unanimous in denouncing this faux pas. Since then, English federalist circles have been exploiting lesser incidents to associate an image of intolerance to the sovereignty movement, a palpable embodiment of Québec's nationalism.

In March 2007, the leader of the Parti Québécois, André Boisclair, praises Asian students he met at Harvard for their work ethics and dedication. He uses the expression "yeux bridés". These words are translated by the Montreal Gazette with "slanted eyes", a derogatory expression compared to its French equivalent. The story is taken up "as is" by the majority of English media. In the following days, Barbara Kay of the National Post writes a column that outlines the contradiction between the English media's interpretation and Boisclair's intent.

In August 2007, Michael Fortier, then minister of Public Works, accuses Gilles Duceppe of putting more value on a Québécois life than an Anglo-Canadian life. The death toll in Afghanistan had started hitting the Québécois and Duceppe pointed out how tragic, loosing someone who could be your neighbor is. The death of a Canadian soldier is certainly more emotionally charged for Canadians than the death of an American soldier. Are we to conclude that Canadians are self-centered, insensitive or racist?

After the 2008 federal elections, Jeffrey Simpson of The Globe and Mail writes that the Québécois always elected one of their own when facing the possibility. Mr. Simpson has enough credentials for anyone not to question his affirmation, but it's simplistic and misleading. It doesn't acknowledge that election results aren't necessarily representative of popular votes. It doesn't address voting patterns such as Montreal's West Island's consistent habit of supporting the Liberal banner. It buries, among other things, that Harper got more votes than Paul Martin in 2006 and more Francophone votes than Stéphane Dion in 2008.

On February 2nd of this year, French president Nicolas Sarkozy states that France and Québec share universal values, such as "the refusal of sectarianism, the refusal of division, the refusal to be self-absorbed, the refusal to define one's identity by fierce opposition to another." In doing so, he subtly, but clearly, attributes all these flaws to the sovereignty rationale. French media in Québec (federalists and sovereigntists alike) rapidly denounce this erroneous link. The majority of national media is too busy celebrating France's stance for Canadian unity to take notice.

The following day in the House of Commons, Stephen Harper adds to it and blames Gilles Duceppe for being sectarian when accusing Ottawa of favoring Ontario over Québec. "Mr. Speaker, this is the sectarianism Mr. Sarkozy talks about" says Harper while responding to the Bloc leader. In reality, the sectarianism Mr. Sarkozy talks about is more along the lines of Jean-Marie Le Pen's racist rant.

Such a vision of Québec's nationalism is shallow and light years behind the Québécois federalist argumentation of people like La Presse's André Pratte who regularly underlines that Duceppe's and Marois' brand of nationalism is respectful of Canada.

The ethnic tune continues to play in English federalist circles. Perhaps, there will come a time when its exposure passes the limits of acceptability. In the meantime, by casting specific characteristics to a group without proper argumentation, this trend ironically takes the same intellectual shortcut that it aims at denouncing, discrimination.


Québec's ethnocentric nationalism

For many observers, Québec's nationalism has been plagued with demonstrations of racism and resentment. For the majority of Québécois, such occurrences are the product of isolated factions. For the majority of Québécois, such occurrences simply demonstrate that no single group has exclusivity over narrow-minded opinions. The fact that Québec nationalism finds its root in the supremacist theories of Chanoine Lionel-Groulx has no bond on today's general opinion. These theories aren't common knowledge and, even if they were, there's no reason for any Québécois to feel obliged to them. In a similar fashion, most Canadians don't feel obliged to Mackenzie King's anti-Semite immigration policies either.

Québec's nationalism can be looked at from many angles, but language and culture particularly stand out. French in the Americas (like English, Spanish or Portuguese) has given birth over the centuries to a specific culture that's very much different from its European origins. Unlike the other three main languages however, French in Canada has a minority position in an English dominated legislature, a language spoken by almost 332 million people in North America.

There's obviously no question about Canada's legislative independence. But for the majority of Québécois, Canadian cultural autonomy is hesitant. Its uniqueness is a variation of a greater North American whole. It's a shade among others, like the difference between the East and the West coasts. The matter has been the topic of many books, but it's not easy to single out in a few words.

The bulk of Québécois (federalists and sovereigntists alike) agrees that a second language is an asset that should be cherished by any country. That this second language has international influence makes it all the more advantageous. That the future of this second language is in many ways under the helm of an English dominated legislature is somewhat disconcerting. Perceived lack of interest from Ottawa is fertile ground for those who value cultural diversity. There lays the essence of Québec's nationalism today, as strong as the indifference it reacts to.

There isn't much of a racial dynamic to it. If there were, it would filter through the province's politics. In the 2008 provincial election, the ADQ flirted with the idea of reducing immigration objectives; how this idea contributed to their demise would be the topic of an interesting debate. PQ immigration policies are similar to the Liberals'; there haven't been major shifts from one government to the other since 1976. Language aside, Québec's immigration policies don't differ much from those of any Western nation in search of a solution to its demographic decline.

Even if the sovereignty movement is less appealing to immigrants, it greets people of all origins and backgrounds. Bernard Cleary (of Aboriginal descent), Marie Malavoy (born in Germany), Alexis Wawanoloath (of Aboriginal descent), Maria Mourani (of Lebanese origin), Joseph Facal (born in Uruguay), Vivian Barbot (born in Haiti) and Maka Kotto (born in Cameroun) have all been elected as Parti Québécois MNAs or Bloc MPs. The common thread between these individuals is the simple belief that cultural diversity in North America is something desirable.

In a very egotistical way, Québec's nationalism takes advantage of its provincial legislative platform to pressure the federal government and off-balance its predominantly English perspective. This is profoundly unfair to Francophones in other provinces, but what other leverage is left to those who can't find an appropriate response to claims they feel are legitimate?

Nowadays, the vision of an intolerant ethnocentric nationalism is almost exclusively fostered by English federalist circles to demonize the sovereignty movement; they have succeeded rather well in focusing the debate on anecdotal incidents. Unfortunately, it betrays the weakness of their argumentation.