Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bilingualism and the divide

While Montreal is the most Anglophone-friendly city in Quebec, my experience there with my peers for Medgames [read about days: 0 | 1 | 2 | 3] gave me a firsthand taste of the bittersweet love-hate relationship between English and French Canada.

Most Montrealers (note that I did not say Quebecers) speak both English and French. Most other Canadians do not. In Ontario, French education is required to a Grade 9 level (nowhere near fluency). In British Columbia, one can actually choose between Spanish and French education. This confuses me a little bit, because the last time I checked, Spanish was not a national language.

After the opening ceremonies for Medgames, much of the instruction and most of the speeches took place only in French. This was boggling, since Medgames was a national event, and the primary language for most of Canada is English. Now it's perfectly fair for things to be said first in French and second in English (I mean, it is their province, therefore their priority), but it didn't make total sense to invite the rest of Canada and then not speak to them. One might say that the Quebecois were merely taking a jab at their fellow Canadians for not knowing both national languages, but that hardly seems effective bridge-building, because regrettable or not, it remains the truth that many if not most Canadians are not functionally bilingual.

This attitude implied indifference to English Canada. English Canada was more than happy to reciprocate. Over the course of the weekend, French dominance evoked sour criticisms by Anglophones around me of Montreal, Quebec, and French. "Why would they invite us here just to ignore us?" Kushima retorted to me once, "They should just separate." This set me immediately on the defensive.

When I ran the stark criticisms of Quebec by my brother, who lives and works in Montreal and who speaks fluent French, he chided that this was just a taste of what Quebecois must feel when they attend so-called "national" events hosted only in English. This is true, but it was not enough to appease anyone that I spoke to over the weekend. There is a sort of feeling in the Anglophone community that English is more important than French - they they ought to bend and we ought not to. Let me correct this conception.

Canada is a great nation, built on a history of multiculturalism and bilingualism. The Quebecois did not immigrate to Canada after the fact, but rather are a founding part of our very Confederation. Their language and their culture have been instrumental in the shaping of our country. Their minds, indispensable to our leadership (think Trudeau and Chretien if you need some recent examples). While Canada may feud amongst itself, there is no Canada without Quebec. To look down on this fact is to scorn this great nation. As citizens, we must be proud of Canada's history and culture. As immigrants, we must embrace the country that accepted us and that we chose to call home.

Certainly, national pride is something sorrowfully lacking in many Canadians, only vaguely aware of their country's achievements. In many ways, Ontario is the pin that holds Canada together. Ontario sees Canada as a nation united. To the West, the Prairies are bathed in oil-rich opulence, clinging to Conservative values, speaking of building "firewalls" to separate them from the rest of the country, and toting a "who needs a country run by the French" attitude. To the East, Quebec attempts to set up its own institutions as though it were a country, resenting English encroachment on their province and blaming Canada for their problems. It is Ontario's job to remind Canada that no province is an island and that we are better off together than apart.

Indeed, Maximus (who is from Vancouver) expressed that Ontario feels different from British Columbia. In Ontario, Canadians are Canadian by virtue of being Canadian. In BC, Canadians are Canadian by virtue of not being the United States.

Canada is, as my brother puts it, a bit of an experiment. Still a relatively young nation, it attempts to forge a Confederation based on compromise and cooperativity, rather than forcing a strong national identity on all members (like the United States). History will be the judge, but certainly we seem to enjoy and appreciate our cultural mosaic - a distinctly Canadian value. If so, then we must respect one another. Respect Canada, respect the East, respect the West, and respect the heritage of this country - bilingualism and all.

It was once posed to me that if Quebec separated from Canada, Canada would be annexed by the United States. The reason? Canada and the US are so close together, and share so many things. Yet what they differ on are some fundamental attitudes - the greatest being our emphasis on multiculturalism as outlined above. We are the "tossed sald," and they are the "melting pot." Yet were Quebec to separate, the originator of this multiculturalism would be lost. We would not laud our bilingual, multicultural nation. We would be the US: English-speaking, with a high immigrant load. While this apocalyptic scenario might never come to fruition, the implication is clear - Quebec is a key part of our national identity. Hate them or love them, we know and we identify that Canada is ten provinces, three territories, and two languages.

It is a richly diverse nation with a proud history. It is also a huge country. As a result, there may be squabbles and there may be mud-flinging. But let us not weild the banner of "separatism" lightly. Canada is our nation, and nations are not formed carelessly; nor should they be extinguished casually.

Now to apply this conciliatory tone to Medgames, I'd like to note that the Université de Montréal was still a very gracious host. While official speaking may have been done unfavourably in French, all our guides and event overseers were more than happy to instruct us in English and with a smile. They were warmly appreciative of the considerate gestures such as, "bonjour" and "merci." In short, they were kind, courteous, and understanding in all of my one-on-one interactions. We ought not to bear them ill. After all, we are all Canadian together.


Teddy v1.2.1 rc1 said...

Re: Kushima: "They should just separate."

haha i'm sure if u ask Kushima a similar question but re:China like why not just let Tibet separate? he'd vehemently say no.

Anonymous said...

Hey! I was trying to find stuffs about the medgames, and I came across your page. I'm from UdeM, so it's interesting to see the point of view from students from another province.

I agree with you that talking mostly in French gives the impression that we ignore you. But, as you've pointed out, we are in a bilingual country... My point is, as much as you guys can't speak French, some of us can't speak English. You'd be surprise by the number of students from UdeM that come from the 'regions' (outside of Montreal). And they just can't speak English.

Personally, I found that people on both sides (francophones and anglophones) were really friendly and tried their best to break the language barrier. Anyway, I've really enjoyed the event, and I hope you did too!

PS. I've probably made a couple of mistakes... my English is weird lol sorry!

a_ndy said...

Re: Anonymous

Thanks for reading and for leaving comments. I did enjoy Medgames, and I thought you guys did a great job hosting it. As I mentioned, I found all of the volunteers to be very nice and accommodating.

I do understand that many Quebec students are not bilingual, as we Ontario students are not. So I certainly don't fault them for not speaking English. I think the one thing that many Anglophone students disliked is when announcements and speeches were given in only one language. Those things seemed important enough that they ought to have been given in both.

Thanks for taking the time to read through my ramblings, and don't worry, your English writing is excellent. :)