Thursday, March 19, 2009

Welcome to Canada

I received this in an e-mail:

How all business phones should be answered!

Press '1' for English.
Press '2' to disconnect until you learn to speak English.
The header for the e-mail was "OHHHHHH BOY DO I EVER AGREE !!!!!"

I promptly returned the e-mail with my comment:
I disagree, coming from both English and French backgrounds and having lived with Cree people in the North, where many of the elders spoke only Cree but within 2 generations, they are now struggling not to lose their language forever.
The response was:

In order to maintain a semblence of unity, coherence, stability, strength & all the rest, a nation must have one predominant language to tie everything is commonsense...a Tower of Babel is too fragile & cannot withstand the forces of nature & aggressive armies arrayed against it...multi-culturalism, multi-linguism may be appealing to out-of-touch ivory tower academics, but in terms of realistic public policy, a strong one predominant language such as English (the number 1 language in the world) is absolutely necessary for the nation's unity & survival.
That was a bit of a shock. So, he is proposing that Québec separate? Because that is what it sounds like to me, although most conservative types don't believe in the separation of Québec, which leaves only one other obvious option, the anglicisation of Québec. Ummm, that's not going to happen, and if government leaders in Ottawa started saying things like the above and then started implementing changes in order to achieve the above, you can be sure that Québec would not be long in having another referendum on sovereignty and this time it would win by a landslide. And I'd be most likely on the "yes" side.

I wrote back to him, trying to choose my words, because I do respect the guy and agree with him on many things, but it got a little long, so I sent this version instead:

With all due respect, if people want to make it work, I believe they can. If not, Québec will HAVE to separate, because they will never give up French as their predominant language.

Without getting into details, which I was going to do, but it got too long, let's just say that the eagerness of the English to make their language and customs dominant, among peoples, such as the Cree, has had a rather nefarious outcome.

I believe that the people who started and worked in residential schools probably had good intentions, and believed that they were doing "right", by teaching the little "savages" to become civilized. However, they were sadly mistaken. Young children need their families more than anything else. I believe you can agree with that. Taking them away from their families, punishing them for speaking their language or for practicing customs that were not "civilized", forcing your culture on them and your language, and then returning them to their communities to become lost sheep, as they once again struggle to re-adjust to a community that had not changed while they were away, and in which they no longer knew the social dos and don'ts was a very bad idea. I speak first hand, as I, as well as my fellow Cree school-mates suffered from a continuing cycle of criticism, of being jeered at if we wanted to better ourselves, or if we were proud of our accomplishments, or if we acted in ways or wanted things that were considered "white". I more than others, most likely, because I WAS white. The suicide rate in these communities is high. The son of one of my friends just commited suicide the other day. He was only 19. He left behind
a girlfriend and a baby.

I respect your opinion. I can even understand it. It makes sense for a country in which other languages are truly a minority. When I lived in BC, my children went to French school, we had a French Community centre, and we spoke French to each other, but outside of the French community, we did not expect to be served in French. But French is predominant in Québec. Here in Québec, my children go to English school, but when I go somewhere public, I expect to be served in French. That is how it should be.

French is not going to go away. And forcing a language on people, especially when they are the original inhabitants of a place, and cannot be told to "learn English or go back to where you came from", is obviously not a good idea either.

This is what I originally wrote but didn't send because it was getting long:

I also respectfully disagree with the thought that there cannot be unity without one predominant language. The US way of government is not a bad idea, with more power to the States, and less power to the Federal government. What you need is a common spirit, a common goal, a common desire. How each region, or in our case, how each people achieves that, and in which language, is their own business. Individual provinces don't have to be bilingual (unless there is good reason to become so, and in most cases there is not), as long as things are bilingual at the Federal level. If Québec only had a smattering of French communities, while the rest was English, then there would be no point in having an officially blilingual country. However, you have a WHOLE province, twice as big as some European countries, that is predominantly French-speaking, and not only that, but that also has a different culture, a different way of doing things, and a different way of expressing itself.

Funny that this would come up now, as yet another youth in the Cree community has committed suicide. I grew up with constant criticism and racism. To be white was the worst insult you could throw at a person. If you did something well, and were proud of yourself, you were jeered at. People didn't hand out compliments. I was told I was undesirable and that no guy would ever want to marry me. I thought it was just me, that it was just racism directed against me because I was the only white girl.

Others, Cree people themselves, many who have left our village and come back, to find that their own children are now going through the same things, are starting to speak out. Especially since the last suicide. It turns out I wasn't alone. It seems that anyone who wanted to educate themselves and succeed in life was jeered at for wanting to be "white". The whole community, and others near it have been going through these cycles of criticim and negativity towards what they perceive as being "white" and towards each other as well. Each generation passes it on to the next. One man recently wrote that he held grudges against other people only because he "was told to", and had no idea for what reason.

Why do they do this? Constantly belittle each other and put each other 'back in their places"?

Back in the 50's-60's, a lot of young children were taken away from their parents and their communities and brought to boarding schools, where they were forced to learn English, and punished if they spoke their native language. In some cases apparently, siblings were also punished if they showed affection for each other. I don't know what else went on in residential schools, because I wasn't there. But even if most people treated the native people "kindly" the fact remains that they still tore them away from their families and communities at an age when they needed them most, and they still punished them for things they should not have been punished for. I give the benefit of the doubt to the people who started these schools, as they probably honestly thought they were doing good, giving the little children a good education and making them all good christians. The goal was not a bad one, it was the method that was very wrong.

This is where you wonder why people do not pause to think for a minute about whether or not they would want done to them what they are about to do to others. It's quite simple, really. Would the same people have wanted Islamic Arabs to come into their villages, take away their children, and, no matter how kindly it was done, refuse to let them speak English, make them learn Arabic, teach them to be good muslims, and punish them if they did anything christian or European? You cannot force religion or culture on people, you can only share with them and if they decide of their own accord to convert or accept your culture, then they are doing it on their terms, without needless suffering.

Native children were given a "white" education and then were returned home to their communities. If going to residential school was not a rude enough culture shock for them, then certainly coming back to their communities, having lost much of their customs, being useless as hunters or gatherers, having to relearn the cultural dos and don'ts must have been.

Is it any wonder then, that people who learned through criticism, who were told that who they are was not "good enough", who were torn away from their families and everything they knew at a young age and thus psychologically damaged would not pass that attitude down to their children and so on and so forth? Is it any wonder that anybody who wanted what was perceived to be "white" was jeered at and put in their place? Is it any wonder that "whiteman" was the worst insult you could label a person with?

To this day, I have a hard time accepting compliments. I still catch myself ignoring them instead of smiling and saying thank you. Because the impulse to protect myself from the sneering of others as they put me in my place because I'm proud of something I accomplished, or proud of who I am is still there.

It affected my relationships with men too, because I would reject them or push them away before giving them the chance to reject me or laugh at me because I thought maybe I was good enough for them. I would panic when guys were attracted to me. I honestly didn't know what they wanted and expected the worst.

On the bright side, it has also made me who I am today. Someone not afraid of being counter-cultural. Someone who, despite being afraid of criticism, will still speak out for what she believes in. Someone who does not give up easily when she wants something. I thank my family for that.

If I did not have the family I had, I believe I too, would have seriously considered suicide. At times when I thought noone liked me, when I got beat up after school EVERY damn day, when kids put burdocks in my hair and stole my mits, spat on my desk, took my pens and sought me out on the playground to punch me, I knew my parents loved me, and I knew that God loved me, and I knew from various trips south to visit cousins, that elsewhere was different. I only had to get out of there, and things would be different.

I find it rather ironic that the whole residential school project backfired and ended up not only screwing up the Cree people, but a few white kids who grew up with them as well.