Has the problem not been solved yet? And most importantly, why should I care?
In a provocative western Canada history essay first published in 2005, acclaimed Prairies writer Sharon Butala asked “What makes a Westerner?” and courageously put forward “Our stubborn refusal to recognize the French fact.” Ironically, the book was pretty much ignored in Western Canada except perhaps for Saskatchewan, the author’s home. Nationwide, Lilac Moon was mainly overlooked by CBC and its Radio-Canada french counterpart. Similar treatment in Québec, and needless to say, never translated.
The book promised “giving us what we need the most right now – a familial and historical exploration of where we came from, and how we constructed our identity”. Furthermore, many British-Columbians originally came from the Prairies and therefore profoundly share its history, including an uneasy coexistence with other groups, whether First Nations, Métis, Francophones, or new Canadians. Uneasy but still inter-marrying with “mixed breeds”, “half breeds” and foreign breeds. The hardship was real and so was the development of a unique identity, repressed, or not. The origins of Butala’s favorite grandmother were simply not to be talked about, for instance. Nevertheless, basic people stuff that we are all made of.
The shared history accounts for personal bankruptcies on many homesteads, the strings being pulled from Central Canada, the hardship on a Land that should never had been endured, and the extermination of an entire specie known for roaming the Prairies. And finally the redemption that came with returning the Land to the wilderness whenever possible or otherwise the damnation of giving it away to the machine that ate you in the first place. Generally speaking a sense of western alienation.
Surprisingly, some book reviews in Central Canada praised the author with: “One of this country’s true visionaries” (Toronto Star) and “The breathtaking accuracy of her insights…is truly unforgettable” (Kingston Whig-Standard)?
What’s new under the sun?
Allow me to also ask after such a preamble if anything really new has indeed *ever* been put forward in regards to the “place of French” in Canada since Trudeau’s vision of state sponsored bilingualism and multiculturalism now dating from the late 60s.
And yet, there has been much water under the bridge since. Globalization has hit us big time along with a severe economical crisis, a perduring environmental one, an energy one, as well as an Internet/media revolution, along with increased unemployment, personal bankruptcies and growing citizenship alienation. Enough to withdraw, “go local” again, and try “cocooning” with all guards up. Not to mention an increased awareness of the disappearance of entire languages and cultures from the surface of this planet, add to the changing linguistic landscape tremendous demographic changes originating from Asia. Coincidentally, French became more accepted as exemplified by substantial enrollments in French immersion programs, often considered by keen parents the “fast lane” within the public school system away from ESL, slow learning, Ritalin, and dysfunctional family problem kids.
And south of the border, the “elephant” neighbor is withdrawing from an english speaking world hegemony. Spanish has made substantial progress challenging the single language status in many states. Marketers have recognized that Customers should be served in their preferred language and culture in order to better “compete”, no matter where they live.
The Internet has recently led the way for responding to real world needs, with language enabled browsers, spellcheckers, profiles, translation buttons, etc. As an example, Google currently supports over 100 user interface languages, 50 for Facebook, the social networking leader, 10 for Wikipedia and 6 for Craigslist, all top Google rankers. Even the struggling CanWest media conglomerate has enabled translation access to its online content in over 12 different languages. And Barbara Yaffe, Diane Francis or Rafe Mair rants over Québec and French have all subsided … coincidentally!
And then dark clouds under the sun
Back at the basic people level, the francophone communities are pretty much all dying the further one gets from Quebec. Very little traction is observed on the next generation past the teens. The last lobby/special interest groups are folding, the programs are being cut, and the “cultural” subsidies have been reduced to a drip. Anyone is barely noticing amongst all the other crisis. Not that these programs were necessarily relevant in 2009 or had any sense of effectiveness.
Year after year, the Commissioner of Official Languages has reported a lack of leadership and actions in “la mise en application de la Loi” throughout federal government agencies and crown corporations. One hundred some citizens bothered participating in a Canada wide consultation, approximately the same number of special interest groups. The medias did not notice anyhow. Putting X’s on these communities made it to the report and has become a common agenda item on the “ordre du jour”: “Sauver les meubles” as much as possible and gradually withdraw. The strings are being pulled once again from central Canada. Politicians carry on business as usual and the medias are sleepwalking. Nobody indeed wishes to be the gravedigger or the undertaker.
Yes French has made substantial progress amongst English speaking Canadians but is giving many signs of becoming some kind of a dead language like Latin reserved for certain elite to discriminate from the masses. But it has also encountered much setback amongst its native speakers. And money being what it is in our society, we can realistically expect more interest in the years to come for more Asian languages and for Spanish, which at least share the same character set.
Back in Québec, recently French thriving Montréal has seen its new immigrants (French speaking!) “integrating” with work in English, similarly to the next generation of “purelaines” not finding work otherwise. Bill 101, once successful for protecting and promoting French in Québec, has become ineffective to deal with the new economy. Québec can barely stay afloat with French in its heart city and is not in a position to pay attention to the struggling francophone minorities elsewhere in Canada. French is also getting cornered to “la Saint-Jean Baptiste” while English is making major inroads from kindergarten, to college and universities, from small business to large corporations, as well as from medias to art&culture scene so that everyone can better “compete” in our brave new world. The mere concept of promoting French that is endangered rather than “bilingualism” remains in the realm of science-fiction. Sovereignty no longer solves the problem either. The hands are tied everywhere.
Looking at the overall trends, leading québécois essayist Jacques Godbout, an elder with presumably little vested interest, is predicting the end of a “French Québec” by 2076, couple generations at most, the process of “Louisianisation” gradually bulldozing through to the outer regions, the regions even asking for it in the name of economical development! Barely a reaction was felt elsewhere in Canada.
Le cafouillage de l’élite politique/Political shambles
In spite of all the above, the official discourse on the “place of French in Canada” from the Liberal or NDP leader has not changed much from Trudeau’s days. “Just watch” Michael Ignatieff and you will see. The issue does not get much vote anyhow and good lip service suffices. On the conservative party side, Prime Minister Harper mainly carries on the cutbacks, already undertaken by the Libs, sometimes more bluntly, but basically steering the course. The Greens have remained more worried about the decline of the golden bell frogs than actual people or groups of.
Prime Minister Chrétien acknowledged in 1999 in front of a Canada wide francophonie assemblée the failure of State sponsored bilingualism on francophone minorities apparently “served in French” outside of Quebec “when the number justifies” with“Assimilation is a fact of life” under barely a shrug. Back to Québec, Prime Minister Harper granted more recently the symbolic “Nation” status, throwing the Bloc off its high road posture as well as sufficient “soft” sovereignist support to “wedge” the vote.
The western Canada national public policy think tanks have all gone dry on the topic of “the place of French” in Canada, focusing instead on “economy” projects, what else is there… Just like if language and culture did not exist in the new world order. Under such a perspective, one can argue “problem solved” and move on like nothing ever happened, a footnote barely required in the history books, the rest to be brushed off under the carpet.
The last bastions of bigotry toward French in western Canada
Yes it is pretty hard to remain a bigot toward a group when it is terminally ill. One certainly needs to be more subtle when doing so and perhaps simply stick to the old storyboard in the absence of new funding or interest to develop a new narrative.
Consider the history books from which our kids learn about Canada, including its western side. One will be struck by the lack of role models and pioneers of French ascent in Western Canada. The books can barely recognize and go beyond the Voyageurs coureur des bois stereotypes that navigated through with Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser and David Thompson. The reader is lead to believe that absolutely nothing ever happened afterward pioneered by francophones. You will be hard pressed to find any reference to their contributions on the first farming settlement on the west coast. Or to transportation, schools, hospitals, education, mining, forestry, agriculture, labor, press, politics, etc. The book “BC spirit of the people” published last year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the mainland colony demonstrated all of the above shortcomings. Barely a footnote on the establishment of Maillardville french community in 1909, what it meant on forestry, on labor, on multiculturalism and on the “BC spirit”!
One can only ask if the memory of French has been obliterated intentionally and by who? Don’t we know by now that History is a tissue of lies written to justify a majority in the oppression of its minorities? The Departments of History in our universities are indeed an enduring bastion of bigotry toward French and other minority groups.
This was demonstrated once again recently on the Vancouver Convention Center historical boardwalk that could not find from a local University history department a better contributing francophone pioneer to British Colombia than Charles Bedeaux. The “fascist Frenchmen” first went nuts in the interior (bringing along his wine cellar, wife and mistress!), before heading back to Europe to collaborate with the Nazis. The panel also notes that he ended up committing suicide in order to avoid trial for his war crimes. Now how worse does it get for depicting a group? Yet, Bedaux made it as the one and only “Frenchman” to get a panel amongst great pioneers of BC. Nobody ever noticed that this was inappropriate. Are we all sleepwalking?
And should a historian have the courage to rectify the soiled record, it is unlikely that the work will get published, promoted, go on tour and get the attention of the medias. So the editor and the publishing house are too part of this bigotry machine that does not even realize it anymore, after having been brought up in it. Although Butala’s book was published, it did go mainly unnoticed. Other writers and publishers are bound to notice the taboo topics.
More bastions of bigotry
It’s strange that mainstream medias do not pay more attention to alternative perspectives in this new age of new medias. It is unlikely that an article such as this one will ever get published. It probably would not fit the existing “storyboard”, the desired formats of quickly consumed and disposed of, the advertiser preferences, and, if it ever did, the quality of English or the journalism/history letters of credential would surely not be sufficient to warrant further exposure.
Schools of journalism in universities are subject to the same forces than the schools of history and are bound to act as yet an other bastion of bigotry. Should we be surprised that they have never really challenged the history storyboard, not noticing anything wrong in our history school books, in the “BC spirit of the people” one or the Vancouver Convention Centre new historical boardwalk? Needless to say that “reader’s letters” pointing out these biases are not going to be chosen for publication.
The “blind spot” – surely not in my backyard?
One could argue that these last bastions of bigotry mentioned above are dying anyway and why bother with them since new initiatives are bound to reestablish better course. Think again.
All of the above happens right here in Vancouver, a place known to be relatively open to new ideas, languages, cultures, etc. A place where most people have had positive interactions with at least one francophone (likely as bilingual as it gets), if not someone in their remote family. Not “redneck” Calgary, or the hardcore “reform” interior. A place that supports presumably progressive new medias such as The Tyee…
Well, since its inception close to 5 years ago, the Tyee has never run one single article covering what’s happening with French in western Canada: not one on the official languages badly needing major reforms, not one on struggling Radio-Canada needing similar, not one on history (e.g. Maillardville 100th anniversary), culture, education or the media landscape. But plenty of articles bashing Québec and its corrupted politicians. Needless to say, the Tyee has never published a single story in French, picked a headline written in French or put in a translation button. Does it get more “waspy” or “freedom-fries” than that?
But should we really be surprised, given Butala’s “Lilac Moon” insight? Nonetheless over 100000s British-Columbians get by with French and two generations of kids have gone through French immersion by now. We live in a multilinguage world and one would think the character set being shared and much common roots in between French and English would be of greater interest.
Make no mistake. All of the above represent the last remnants of bigotry toward French. Granted, that is nothing as much “over your head” as the last public lynching held 50 years ago in Western Canada of french Canadian mulatto Léo Anthony Mantha and so many Métis and First Nations that preceeded him. Nothing either as obvious as Riel’s treatment for trying to negotiate sovereignty in Western Canada, a mere 75 years earlier.
Where do we go from here out of the “blind spot”?
Not easy to undo these embedded last bastions of bigotry scattered throughout our institutions. Although people are moving faster than their institutions, the damage inflicted over the years subconsciously is serious. Some heavy duty collective therapy will probably be needed. And we are certainly not about to find “the place of French in Canada post-Trudeau” until we have exorcized a few daemons. Who can stomach this?
Like it or not, we have denied the identity we all inherited from the first inhabitants, we have denied the identity we have also inherited from the Métis, are we also going to keep denying the identity we have inherited from the francophones that preceded us to this Land? And most importantly, are we better off for it? These identities were real and did not thrive on domination matters and oppression. The Americans have notoriously failed to deal with their daemons for what they have done with their First Nations and we have seen the oppression this has lead to globally.
Oppression matters are indeed about to swallow you under the “new world order”. The one pulling the strings still do. First Nations folks use to say you are hosed when the judge, the sheriff and the press are all against you. Perhaps there are lessons of wisdom to be learnt from the first ones that welcome you to this Land. Try “we are all in this together”!
Perhaps a new narrative would be useful for “collective therapy” and perhaps western Canada can lead the way this time around. Or would we rather have central Canada tell us once again? And finally please note that “dead ducks” in western Canada don’t behave anymore the way they used to!
The blog post: Angle-mort*: the place of French in Canada “post-Trudeau” (Opinion)
Réjean Beaulieu, Vancouver
Le Canard Réincarné Lorsque la fiction se mêle avec la réalité en milieu minoritaire