Dr.Dawg

La ligne dure

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There is a difference between a principle and a regulation, observes the insightful visual artist Jennifer Macklem in the Ottawa Citizen today. In fact one might well argue, based upon experience, that the two not infrequently become polar opposites.

This problem becomes particularly salient when people themselves treat principles as regulations, inventing their own internal bureaucracy cum police force. Busybodies, we used to call them: always running around wagging fingers, sustained only by their infernal sense of rightness.

Enter Martin Thibodeau.

Thibodeau is a fluently bilingual Canadian who believes strongly in francophone language rights, and, in particular, in the provisions of the Official Languages Act.

He has just won an impressive $12,000 after taking Air Canada to court for not serving him in French—although he wanted half a million. It appears that he requested a 7UP and was given a Sprite instead.

They are both lemon-lime drinks. I have requested Coke on occasion and been given Pepsi. I wonder if the only sin here was that the English-speaking flight attendant didn’t respond, “Je n’en ai pas, Monsieur: voulez-vous prendre un Sprite au lieu?”

This isn’t a first for Thibodeau. He went after Air Canada in 2002 and won then, too; and took on Ottawa transit when a driver had the effrontery to greet him with “Hello” instead of “Bonjour.” Or was it an overly-aspirated “allô?”

Needless to say, this has prompted just about every redneck francophobe in The Rest of Canada to sound off to their enablers on talk shows. Columns have appeared from the usual suspects as well, with which, it must be said, it is sometimes difficult to disagree in many of the particulars.

The never-really-hidden anti-Quebec agenda, though, is palpable. This is how the Toronto Sun introduces a story on the issue:

“Que., rest of Canada split over Air Canada bilingualism ruling”

Like hell. For “Quebec,” read “two Montreal residents.” Sensible people, on both sides of the great linguistic divide, will decry the whole matter, for completely different reasons.

For the above-mentioned francophobes, those of the Bilingual Today, French Tomorrow variety, this is yet more slippage, more giving into Quebec’s allegedly insatiable demands, more indulging the supposed petulance of the human rights set. The real problem for these folks is official bilingualism as enshrined in the Official Languages Act, and the Quebec tail supposedly wagging the Canadian dog even as it plots to sever itself from the canine in question.

Instead, I submit, the real problem in this case is no more than an officious little pettifogger running around being his own version of the Quebec language police—you know, the folks who, armed with real regulations, dragged the immortal Schwartz’s into battle because of the apostrophe. (Needless to say, the latter found its way into B’nai Brith’s annual inventory of “anti-Semitic incidents.”)

And what is the result of seeing the world in such convenient black and white, instead of colours, hues and shades? Simple: it encourages everyone else to look at the world in the same way. Rather than breaking new ground, advancing rights, and building links of communication and understanding, it succeeds in doing the very opposite.

Bravo, mon vieux.

My gut feel? Quebec’s signage regulations are plain silly, and the language law is an intolerable imposition upon minority language rights, brought into even sharper relief with its insistence that the rest of the country be officially bilingual. In the Yukon, the handful of francophones there have more language rights than the local Native people, who considerably outnumber them. In Nunavut, French was an official language well before Inuktitut became one.

But what are we really seeing? Two streams of thought, not one: official bilingualism as a counter to souverainisme, an attempt, if inevitably clunky on occasion, to make francophones feel part of Canada by giving them linguistic access to government services where numbers warrant.

We can’t have it both ways. Either those services should be equally accessible, or we don’t really have a government of all the people. And, if the latter is indeed the case, then we may as well have two sovereign governments.

But that’s broad principle. The devil is in the details, or, in this case, in the laws and regulations, either mentally constructed or official, which substitute for thought, nuance and comity.

I am reminded, none too pleasantly, of the bitter attacks on Elizabeth May by a handful of Stalinists some time ago because May, in her admittedly irritating, prissy way, had expressed personal misgivings about abortion—while insisting, nevertheless, that abortion should be safe and legal. How that crowd parsed her words, denounced her, called her “anti-choice.” And when some of us took her part, we too found ourselves under sustained and vicious assault.

“Life is not nuanced,” said one of the pack at the time. Well, it is, or it wouldn’t be worth living. The trick, though, is to live it, not filter it, drain it of colour, see it as a constant struggle between all or nothing. And to do that while retaining solid political principles, but as a lens, not a rulebook.

In other words, M. Thibodeau—déteins-toi, mon ami. The next round of 7UP is on me, in fact I’ll offer something much stronger, et je vais le commander en français juste pour toi.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr.Dawg published on July 16, 2011 1:21 PM.

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