Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What Does It Mean To Be Canadian?

Nouilles de Lan zhou
I ask that having being in Montreal these last three days, reading signs in French, conversing with bartenders in English and having a great bowl of Nouilles de Lan zhou in a tiny restaurant in Chinatown where everyone was speaking Chinese.

And today is Saint-Jean-Baptist Day, a provincial holiday looked upon by the politically-motivated as an annual reminder that Quebec is French, not English, by others as a day off to party, and by others as a day somewhere in between. I did not meet anyone today agitating for an independent French Quebec; it rained today so I didn’t go the big parade or the music festival in the evening; I did go to Chinatown to have that wonderful bowl of hand-pulled noodles, beef slices, green onions, cilantro, white radish rounds, garlic and red chili oil in a broth of “30 natural  spices and Chinese medicinal herbs,” according to the colorful placemat given only to me, the only ‘foreigner’ in the place.

I’ve never asked my British Columbia colleagues what it means to be Canadian. If anything, they’ve stressed that they are not Americans. And anyway, those of us who inhabit the Salish Sea north and south of the border probably have more in common with each other and the Salish Sea than with the rest of our respective countrymen and women.

Except in rare instances, we do speak the same language. I don’t have to practice my French (poorly) when I go to Vancouver. I did before going to Montreal, the same way I practiced (poorly) before going to Brussels. But in Montreal,  the taxi driver from the airport spoke English and listened to gypsy jazz and broke into French when I ask if he spoke French. He also gave us a demonstration of Louisiana French, along with a brief linguistic analysis. You have to go to Quebec City, he said, if you want to hear only French— but even there, if you speak English, they will want to speak and practice their English.

But on the streets of Montreal I hear French: elderly gentlemen, young ladies, children, women in headscarves, black man with dreadlocks, even some Chinese. Carlos the Air Canada flight attendant announced in English, then French, en route to Trudeau Airport.

But the English-speaking bartender who grew up in Montreal shrugged when I asked him about Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. Oh, he said, that’s something bigger in Quebec City.

French is the official language of Quebec and Canada’s official languages are French and English. Language has been both the flash point and the proxy for political and cultural battles in Quebec and between Quebec and the Canadian government. Today, if you believe the man on the radio talking this morning about what Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day means, to be a Quebecer is to be the best of both French and English. He said he was proud to be Canadian.

I’m not Canadian but I think it would be great if being French and English and Hispanic and Native American and Chinese were what it meant to be Canadian. Americans usually don’t think they can learn anything from another country. We might from our northern neighbor.

--Mike Sato

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