I’ve been pondering this post for a while, and something about encountering my own ancestry in Quebec City brought it back to the fore. Something about which stories we tell at which times, which get foregrounded and why. Thinking about how much I want to find to connect to in the people who preceded me, and how those stories of who we are get embedded and tight.
I posted a few weeks ago about being in Montreal at an event I was helping facilitate, nominally about violence against women. But also in so many ways about our history, about Canada and how we connect to each other and move away.
When I was in high school and just beyond, I was taken with stories about the history of French Canada, read the mid-century literature, looked at Refus Global and tried to understand the Quiet Revolution, what it meant to break out of muffled, constrained reality as a culture and claim voice. I was so drawn to the energy of the Quebec of the 60s and 70s — so many parallels with the impulses of adolescence, bursting out of family strictures and expectations, with the oxygen of throwing over what we take for granted. I tried to reclaim my own french language, with summer exchange and immersion programs, taking fully bilingual courses, reading Quebecois writers.
I was very taken with the metaphor in the Hugh McLennan book Two Solitudes, the notion of the French and the English being “two solitudes who protect and touch and greet each other.” (A translation of Rilke that I’ve heard differently, elsewhere). I liked that idea, of distinctness with connection. Internalized it, really, in how I see my own connection to other people.
And then, somehow my romance with Quebec wore off, lost maybe in the miasma of a first year of university that somehow enabled me to do the least I could do, where I skipped more of my Canadian Studies classes than I should have because the French readings were a little too much for me, the prof intimidating. A year spent hunkering down in my residence in sweat pants, ordering cheap chinese food.
I came later, of course, to understand that story about Canada, the streams of French and English, as an important one, but not the only one. It felt like the West was just an exasperated “whatever” wave, over those decades diversity in my world exploded, and I came to understand just how absent First Nations narratives were from all of what I’d been taught, had taken on board. I notice that even now, I need to be poked to ask the right questions, to understand what all of this means. I recently told a friend about the updated version of the Maple Leaf Forever that a CBC show in Toronto came up with about a dozen years ago, one that focuses on everyone who has come to this country to build it in diversity — and I was chagrined when I realized how I hadn’t even noticed how absolute the positioning was in eliminating the existence of First Nations people. Empty land for the making of immigrants. And it hadn’t occurred to me.
All of this swirled up in our Montreal event. At the opening reception, there was a poutine bar, and aboriginal drumming and throat singing, and I made a breezy little post on facebook about “poutine bar and aboriginal drumming, where am I?”
There was also wine. I didn’t really make the connection between the wine and the drumming, being kind of dazzled by the poutine bar and the need to work on design and slides for the next day.
But there was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction over the next couple of days, and then Ellen Gabriel, a First Nations leader in Quebec, gave a keynote talk, and it opened up all sorts of channels of disquiet.
Ellen Gabriel really came to my attention (and maybe the public at large) during the Oka Crisis, when she was one of the main spokespersons for Kanehsatà:ke, the community that fought back against the annexation of land to build a golf course. In 1990, I was much more of a direct activist type, and I joined numerous protests in Toronto about the military occupation, and then somehow had the impulse, with a couple of other people then in my life, to go to the site of the crisis to demonstrate disapproval. We found a group that were acting as human rights observers, and naively, carrying supplies from that group for the peace campers who were set up there, drove off, with no real idea of what we were doing.
It didn’t go well — we got caught in a confrontation between the Sureté du Québec and a small group of First Nations people who’d come from some other part of the country, and who were immediately, brutally arrested, leaving a small child sobbing. I tried to look after the child, who couldn’t speak French, and one cop told me it was okay to stay with her, and another decided I was doing something wrong, and dragged me out of the car and hit me to the ground.
All in about 15 seconds.
So we left, one of our group railing about the fascism, shaken by realizing we’d tried to do something that we had no idea about, were just stupidly putting ourselves in the way.
One of those strange, unparse-able memories, but dredged up when Ellen Gabriel spoke.
And as it had for me 22 years ago, her words unstuck some things in the bigger group, churned up stories of what was wrong, and a flashpoint was the co-presence of the wine at the opening reception with the drumming. Offensive to many of the aboriginal women in the room, and a conduit to many stories of marginalization, noticing how it was showing up in the room.
And it was true, and not true, all at the same time. I noticed my own little hand wave of exasperation about my monolingualism, doing mental half translations of the French spoken in the room, but not listening deeply. Not trying to engage with how to speak in such a way that people using headphones would be able to easily follow. A little “joke” in a moment where I went off to brief 12 people quickly about a fast paced experiential game, and when J asked me how it went, I said “well, I forgot I couldn’t speak French. And my Mohawk isn’t any too good either.”
A joke, but true, my positioning myself as in the centre, taking for granted that others would just orient to that. Marginalizing without intent in any way. Just not asking.
What happened in our room over those three days was a fractal of Canada — an attempt to come together in a pan-Canadian effort, fumbled in subtle edges. I learned later that alcohol and drumming is a flashpoint for many, beyond our room, though as my friend who works in First Nations communities told me, “some drumming troops do it.” What questions should we have been asking in the planning? In diversity, where is bringing together traditions creative and generative, and where is it going to crash before you even start? How do we remember to ask?
It’s not really about the drumming and the wine (and poutine), but the conversation about that is about so many things. The Schrodinger’s Cat moment where every possibility is true at once, but the next step dictates how the “real” story emerges. We *could* come together and assume we all mean to hear each other, and focus on shared vision, which we tried to do in this work. And the reality of living in it — clashing up against languages, how wearying it is to be the one always adjusting, of feeling unheard — how easy it is to foreground the story of not being heard, of being the one to try, rather than to keep foregrounding a story of trying to collaborate.
I’ve observed for a while that Canadians seem to achieve progress and innovation when we don’t try to confront it directly. We’ve managed to live without a federal abortion law since 1988, while the attempts to reach a compromise were brutal and divisive. We live with the Queen on the money though few people really regard her as Head of State in any real way. Quebec has de facto separated, creating itself as a truly distinct culture, but direct conversations about it are awful. We have a de facto speed limit of 120kmh in Ontario, the 100 kmh signs completely disregarded, but confronting the question would bring out tiresome debate and argument. Queer rights were guaranteed through interpretation of the Constitution, not by decisive legislation.
We don’t find collective action in dialogue, in discussion, in Canada, and we don’t really like to act by fiat either. We just let things emerge. It serves us well in many ways — it’s a more complex adaptive way of doing things, less polarizing than what we see in the US. And it also enables us to not engage in what we share, means that we don’t step in too directly when the current government gets less and less transparent. We don’t demand that transparency, because we don’t know what to do with it, really.
The Montreal event was heady, it was upsetting, and frustrating, and it was predictable, really, though why I hadn’t thought to predict it worries me. I don’t know if I ask enough critical questions in some of my work, make assumptions. I know it reminded me that I don’t pay enough attention to how much I am at the centre, what I take for granted. And this made me feel ashamed. Ashamed at how I have let the French I was on the edge of grasping become fragments on my tongue, ashamed at how superficial my understanding of and engagement with First Nations reality in Canada is. And not sure what to do with that.