Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Oh, Canada...C'est pas vrai ?!

While living abroad, keeping up with what’s going on in one’s own country can result in mixed emotions. Many Americans living in Paris, for example, feel ashamed whenever President Bush opens his mouth. Some Canadians, on the other hand, are guilty of being more patriotic than they ever were when actually living in the Great White North: we’re an agreeable lot that welcomes immigrants from across the globe; we benefit from all of the positive things that America has to offer without actually having to be American; and we are keepers of peace, rather than purveyors of war.

Canadians, long overshadowed by their superpower neighbor to the south, have struggled to establish their own identity. What – aside from grizzly bears, mountains, beavers, polite folk, hockey and heaps and heaps of snow – does our nation really stand for?

It can be difficult to explain to one’s new friends across the Big Pond – especially if one never bothered thinking about this before. And it’s rare when Canada receives airtime in the French media – and when it does, there’s a strong chance that those mixed emotions will surface.

Such is the case surrounding the recent debate taking place over, ironically enough, identity. Not Canadian identity, but the status held by its Francophone province, Quebec. A prickly issue (because Canadians don’t start wars, they have time to squabble over whether or not Quebec should, or is ever going to, separate from the rest of the country), this argument has divided an already floundering Liberal party even further during its all-important leadership convention.

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried to quiet things down by announcing that the Quebecois will be officially recognized as a nation. The problem with the law, written in both of Canada’s official languages – English and French – is that no one can agree on what the definition of “Quebecois” actually is.

Some argue that “Quebecois” (“Quebecker,” in English) means anyone who resides in the province of Quebec. Others emphasize that “Quebecois” has a deeper meaning, and should be reserved for Canadian Francophones only. In the true spirit of bureaucracy, no one really knows what the hell is going on.

Frenchmen often smirk at the twangy, down-home French that is spoken in Quebec, declaring that the accent is so harsh it can “tue l’amour” (or kill love) and that the Quebecois (or Quebeckers, or whatever they are) use funny phrases that either don’t exist in France, or have not been applied since the Revolution. But whether or not Quebeckers/Quebecois/Canadian Francophones speak a pretty, refined French is beside the point: the truth is, a large majority of Canada’s population doesn’t speak the country’s second official language, period.

To a Frenchman traveling across Anglophone Canada by car, this phenomenon is, he admitted to his Anglophone Canadian driving partner, quite shocking. In Paris, everything from menus to museum guides to the notices posted in boutiques are translated into English, if not several other languages, even if French is the country’s only official language. Even with France’s reputation for being weak when it comes to learning other languages, most people can get through a basic conversation in English, and in Paris, it’s not uncommon for people to speak two, three, or four languages aside from their mother tongue. Try finding someone who can stumble through a conversation in French in Vancouver or Toronto, two of Canada’s largest cities. (It’s not impossible, but it’s not that easy, either.) And, while Quebec imposes ridiculous laws requiring signs to feature the French type larger than the English, the only hint of French in the rest of Canada is on the federal street signs and buildings, and on the labels pasted to the products that are bought in the stores.

Instead of quibbling over the details of Quebec’s identity, Canadian politicians (both Anglophone and Francophone) should be sharpening their language skills so that they can actually comprehend the laws they pass. Then, as the leaders of what they proudly deem a multicultural society, they should get busy ensuring that Canadians can properly learn to master both of the languages they are supposed to be able to speak.

Maybe then, the entire nation – including Quebec – would be on the right path to finding its identity.