The Fractured Nation Interviews

Jean Souviens

Language - The Great Unifier

The Fractured Nation Interviews Johnny: I noticed that you didn’t mention language as part of your definition of what is a country, yet throughout Canada’s history, Québec has always maintained that preserving the French language was one of the things it considered most important.

Souviens: It is not important what language you speak or how many languages you speak as long as you can all understand each other when you speak to each other … and that is without interpreters. It is important for citizens of a country to understand what this Saul guy called the other, l’autre.

Johnny: [surprised] I don’t think he was referring to language when he wrote about understanding “the other” in Reflections of a Siamese Twin, but I am impressed.

Souviens: Impressed! Impressed by what???

Johnny: Impressed that you have read John Ralston Saul.

Souviens: Why are you surprised? Do you think Québecquers are dummies that only read Tintin and Le Journal de Montreal?

Johnny: No, of course not.

Johnny: Myself, like most Québecquers, can read French and English authors in the original writing. How about you Mr. MacDonald?

Johnny: No. Getting back to Québec and its emphasis on the preservation of French during its history as a province of Canada …

Souviens: Are you familiar with the saintly Jacques Parizeau?

Johnny: Yes of course, he almost won the 1995 referendum, loosing by one percentage point. Quite an achievement!

Souviens: You may not remember this, but in the period leading up to the referendum he was asked how a French country could prosper in a sea of people speaking English. What do you think he answered?

Johnny: Unlike Canadians, the Americans were not about to learn French to accommodate Québec. If they wanted to do business with them they would have to learn English.

Souviens: Exactly, and that is what the saintly Parizeau said.

Johnny: If I remember correctly, Premier Parizeau was quite blunt in his pronouncements. I remember his famous reference to Québecquers being trapped like lobsters in a boiling pot if they voted yes in the referendum. Until now I thought that was the winner for bluntness, but admitting that more Québecquers would have to learn English should Québec achieved independence, that is sort of like … like skewering a sacred cow.

Souviens: He did not say more Québecquers would have to learn English, he said “every Québecquer would have to learn English.” By the way, what is this sacred cow that you English skewer?

Johnny: It’s just an expression? Are you saying that Premier Parizeau actually said “every Québecquer would have to learn English if Québec became independent”?

Souviens: Yes. By the way, how is my English speaking?

Johnny: Just fine. Where was I? Yes, then, why this emphasis on preserving French before independence?

Souviens: It is a way of maintaining cohesion and a sense of purpose for the struggle ahead; to give you a greater appréciation that you belong to a community of like-minded people. That is it, it is a community thing; language and community they go together, they unify the people in a community.

Johnny: Language as a unifying force even when it isn’t. Amazing!

Souviens: Nothing amazing there. The cohesive force among Muslims, par exemple, apart from all learning the same thing, is speaking the Arabic. Arab people make up only a small percentage of Muslims yet all Muslims, black, white, yellow, red or brown all feel they are brothers and sisters because they speak a common language. When Ontario started schools where little boys and girls would speak only Arabic they said it would facilitated integration into the greater Canadian family.

Johnny: It didn't!

Souviens: What foolishness. Getting the little tykes to learn to speak the English first properly, that was what should have been a priority. All they did teaching another language before the language of the people made these little boys and girls feel that they were part of the Muslim community not the Canadian. The same for all the other immigrants their sons and daughters who came to Canada and never learned to communicate in English.

Johnny: Is that why Québec, even before it achieved independence demanded that immigrants to the province attend French schools.

Souviens: Of course. We’re not stupid. Even the immigrants that came to Canada during the great flood understood the importance of a common language as a force for unity. Only you English were too stupid to understand. The immigrants, they knew that for Canada, English-Canada that is, to stay united it had to speak a common language. They did not want this so-called “babelization” of Canada that your previous guest mentioned.

Johnny: Babelization of the airwaves.

Souviens: Same difference. Let me tell you a little story why I believe that even the immigrant community did not want this babble thing. I was a teenager when I was with my parents on a trip to British Columbia. On the way to the old gold rush town of Barkerville, we stopped at a place called Williams Lake. We were just walking on the sidewalk, talking to each other, mining (sic) our own business when this big Hindu or Pakistani fellow comes to us and yells at us to speak English. The same thing happened during a walk through that park in Vancouver, but this time it was a Chinese or maybe Japanese woman yelling at us to speak the English.

Johnny: That was unfortunate, I don’t believe that was typical of British Columbians, they were extremely tolerant.

Souviens: DON’T START WITH THE TOLERANT THING ALREADY! What is it with you English and your tolerance for everything? Why don’t you be tolerant now and let me finish my story.

Johnny: There’s more?

Souviens: Of course there’s more. This story is about why speaking a common language is important for the country, not about being told to speak English.

Johnny: I’m sorry, go ahead.

Souviens: Where was I? With all these interruptions... Ah yes. The big Hindu fellow did not ask us to speak Punjabi or some other Hindu language and the Chinese woman did not ask us to speak Chinese, they said to speak English. Maybe they know something about how speaking the same language is good for the country unlike you English babelizers?

Johnny: I think Canadians, English-Canadians were just trying to do the right thing by allowing immigrants to maintain their language and traditions from one generation to the next.

Souviens: What do you English say; the road to hell is asphalted with good deeds.

Johnny: Paved with good intentions.

Souviens: While English Canada saw people speaking and not understanding each other as being a good thing, Québec believed that people living in the same country should be able to speak to each other, as I said before, without needing an interpreter. This is good for a country.

Johnny: Yes, and the language laws that the former Province of Québec passed making French the official language and forcing everyone to becoming proficient in French are a testament to that fact.

Souviens: And English.

Johnny: Yes, but after having become proficient in the official language.

Souviens: Again, I ask you, what is wrong with that? Just because you English were not proud enough of your language to make it the number one language that everybody had to properly speak is your fault. You cared so little for the preservation of your language, the language of English-Canada, that now in parts of your former Canada, other official language, Arabic being the most significant has replace English as official language. It is hard to learn a language. What did you think would happen when instead of forcing the new people to Canada to learn English properly you paid for them to learn the language of their other country as they did in Ontario in 2006, starting Arabic immersion in grade two, Christ de Tabernacle?

Johnny: Whatever the objectives of teaching immigrants and children of immigrants in their native language were, it did undoubtedly contribute to this so-called babelization of English-Canada.

Souviens: Do you thing Québec would be a country today if we had allowed the babelization of Québec the way you English did your country?

Johnny: Probably not.

Souviens: History has shown that countries that have the best chance of surviving a long time are those that speak a common language, maybe two.

Johnny: I don’t necessarily agree, but the disappearance of Canada definitely provides some support for your hypothesis.

Souviens: My hippo what?

Johnny: Your conclusion. Thank You. I think you have answered the question that may have been on a lot of viewers mind, I know it was on mine, as to why the French language lost much of its appeal for Québecquers after independence.

Souviens: Glad I could be a light.