Place de résistance

Immigration is on the rise in Québec, and nowhere in Canada is the struggle to integrate newcomers more challenging. This week, the Toronto Star publishes a series of articles examining what's behind these challenges:The reports point out the courteous relationships the Québécois maintain with its minorities on a daily basis. But the series mostly underlines how everyday life courtesy doesn't necessarily translate into the workplace; it confirms the preconceived ideas many Canadians have towards Québec. A soft consensus can be drawn from comments regarding the merits of culture lessons.

Unfortunately, these articles are only available in English; French media should pick them up.


Spelling regulation

There's been a bit of a brouhaha in the English press lately about French spelling. The ministère de l'Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport decided to officialize the timid orthographic rectifications that were published almost twenty years ago by the Académie française. As expressed in a recent Globe and Mail editorial, some people are under the impression that Québec is being "servile to language functionaries in the old country." "Why follow France's rules?" they ask.

A better question yet... why not follow France's rules? Unlike the USA or other English-speaking countries, Québec doesn't have the weight to impose its own spelling convention. And as if our kids needed more inconsistencies in their educational environment, teachers had started publicizing these rectifications with equivocal guidelines. The Ministry of Education's recent decision simply clarifies the inevitable and it's about time!

Through time, usage strays in mysterious ways and, for some people, getting you're point across in writing isn't the main idea anymore. Their intent rather becomes to impress the reader with ones writing skills and then, get the point across. This isn't very effective in today's fast pace communications.

French spelling is downright archaic and I personally long for a robust reform, one that would put written language in its rightful place. You see, communication between human beings starts with speech, not writing. As powerful as it is, writing was simply devised to support communications, not make them more complicated. Take a look at Spanish, for example. Hispanophones know exactly what spelling is for. No ridiculous "ph" for the "f" sound and no useless double consonants. Pero (but) and perro (dog) aren't pronounced the same way and don't mean the same thing. It's simple and effective, like it's supposed to be.

Oh... don't get me wrong. I know how to spell and I derive no small satisfaction from my proficiency with the French language. I've had my share of successful sparring with Frenchmen who felt they could teach me a few things. "But you don't understand... there's a whole history in the way each of these words is spelled." I was told. "Yeah right... as if we all needed to carry that weight. Following that rubbish logic, we'd still be speaking and writing la langue d'oïl." I replied.

Do you think anyone would care a hundred years from now, if somebody decided today that French, or any language, is just perfectly ripe and shouldn't change anymore? That's simply not how it works. In French, the word "connoisseur" became "connaisseur" because it was more representative of its pronunciation. The current English spelling of the word is evidence that it passed into the language before that particular correction came into force. Nowadays, French-speakers look at the English spelling and scratch their heads. Things evolve and it's sound to keep up.

Now... the fact that spelling is dictated by a governing body some thousands of kilometers away doesn't mean that the Québécois can't be imaginative; there are other ways to assert your distinctiveness. Québec is keen on creating new words using a French logic and its Grand dictionnaire terminologique is a clear example of this enthusiasm. The province could teach a few tricks to France in this globalization era.


Please be reasonable

There's a new chapter [Google translation] being written on reasonable accommodation and it's a crooked twist. A man refused to be served by a civil servant wearing a religious scarf. Her supervisor invited the man to go back at the end of the line so he could get to someone else's wicket. That proposal didn't go well.

Situations like these have been making the news on and off for quite some time now and politicians are behaving as if they were wishing them away; they won't. As more immigrants come here to help us build a better society, the absence of a clear framework will contribute to the confusion and the frustration. A few facts...
  • In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of CN against a Sikh employee who refused to wear a hard hat at a particular work site.
  • In 1990, the RCMP accepted a precedent setting request from one of its new officers to wear the turban with his uniform. No court ruling was involved in the decision.
  • In 1996, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal ruled in favor of a motorcyclist who felt his turban was enough to protect him.
  • In 2008, an Ontario court ruled against a motorcyclist who felt his turban was enough to protect him.
  • This year, the Supreme Court ruled that a Hutterite community in Alberta must abide by provincial rules that make a photo mandatory for all new drivers' licenses.
Making people of all origins welcomed and accepted involves a lot of work, but it doesn't mean they should be getting all privileges. Many Canadians will move heaven and earth to provide a Muslim woman with a lady doctor. Are there that many lady doctors in Muslim countries?

There's obviously a limit to reasonable accommodation, but what's reasonable to some isn't to others. I understand the safety concern that was in mind when concertgoers were asked to leave their kirpan behind at Gurdas Maan's concert last August in Calgary. Proponents of such a stance have been accused of misunderstanding Sikhism. I think they rather understand the deviant minds that could use religious excuses to perpetrate their wrongdoings. I personally don't mind religious symbols. However, I do expect people to drop their ceremonial blade upon entering a courthouse or embarking an airplane. I also expect people to show their faces when asked to identify themselves or upon entering a bank.

Now... someone wants to open up a sugar shack where ham and bacon are replaced by halal or kosher meat? That's great!... I'd actually be curious to try maple syrup sweeten baklavas or lekach.

When it comes to religious request, it's a given that the Québécois express reservations more easily than most Canadians. Why is that so? The average Jean-Guy is more xenophobic than the average Doug? Or is he simply less politically correct and more vocal? One thing's for sure, as demonstrated with the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, the Québécois aren't afraid to wash their dirty laundry in public. Perhaps the most logical explanation is the fact that the province entered modern times by shedding its religiousness out of the public place. The Quiet Revolution has left its mark.

In January 2007, Hérouxville received international attention when its town council passed controversial measures regarding practices deemed unsuitable. The code of conduct stated, among other things, that stoning women or burning them alive was prohibited, as was female genital cutting. The initiative was labeled xenophobic.

In the recent edition of its study guide Discover Canada, Citizenship and Immigration Canada included the following passage: "In Canada, men and women are equal under the law. Canada's openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, 'honour killings,' female genital mutilation or other gender-based violence. Those guilty of these crimes are severely punished under Canada's criminal laws."

There's still a lot of work to do.


Bloodshed for independence

In a column titled "The beautiful free ride of Gilles Duceppe" published by The Globe and Mail on Jan. 12, 2006, Lawrence Martin writes: "... the potential costs of secession: Economic turmoil. Major civil strife, if not bloodshed. Seething partitionist pressures in Quebec. Endless conflict with the rest of the country over ownership of capital and resources. A diminished Canada, subject to further breakup."

I've been expanding my sources of information with English media for many years. I've seldom witnessed references to possible violence in the event of a sovereign Québec from French-speaking circles, be they federalist or sovereigntist. When such a possibility is brought up, it almost exclusively comes from English sources. And I wonder... under what circumstance, and by whom, would fighting be considered desirable?

Of course, the province went through a somber episode in October 1970. The fact that this episode is rooted in the same ground than the current sovereignty movement may be tainting its general understanding. But the actors of the democratic thrust that prevailed before, and prevails even more since, unequivocally distanced themselves from these events. They even used them to actually galvanize support against violence in efforts for Québec's sovereignty.

Since, the province has gone through two referendums, 1980 and 1995. Both were peaceful. The fact that 1995 was lost by the sovereigntists by a hairline should have betrayed belligerent intents, if any. Nothing happened. Those nights were even more peaceful than the Canadiens' Stanley Cup victories of 1986 and 1993! The Québécois have their priorities.

So, could violence stem from outside the province? Could federalists be marching down the streets of Ottawa burning down Québec related symbols? Could federalists from outside the province be marching down the streets of Montréal or Québec City prompting local residents? It's not entirely impossible, but I don't see it happening.

The most "promising" potential for discord can probably be found between factions within the province. Like Mr. Lawrence, many believe that some residents would prefer to remain Canadians. Is this desire actually strong enough to lead to violence? What exactly would be worth taking up arms? It's not like anyone would be asked to go anywhere. English-speaking communities of Montréal's West Island would keep their land, so would Natives and any other group. It's a given that Natives feel they have a better shot at territorial claims with a Canadian government, but resorting to violence to simply maintain "a better shot" sounds like a convoluted scheme. If not for land, what would anyone be fighting for?... to keep the Canadian passport?... to keep the Canadian currency? I believe that the vast majority of Québécois would want to continue living in a peaceful Québec and that those who feel differently are overrating the Canadian identity.

Perhaps, Mr. Lawrence's point of view betrays his opinion that Canada would have more to loose from an independent Québec than the province itself.