The Referendum Debate

If we’re to discover Our Own Truth we must stop perpetuating our own lies

Heather Menzies September 4 1978
The Referendum Debate

If we’re to discover Our Own Truth we must stop perpetuating our own lies

Heather Menzies September 4 1978

If we’re to discover Our Own Truth we must stop perpetuating our own lies

The Referendum Debate

Heather Menzies

So, the public’s lost interest in national unity. Perhaps one reason is that, lacking an outright civil war on the books, we see Canada as the tiny perfect country that will carry on forever. The dirt-under-the-fingernails reality strains with power plays and previous separatism ventures. Still, either ignoring or ignorant of that history, we cling to the pristine image.

But we risk becoming the victims of our own illusions. Having substituted a faith in ourselves based on self-knowledge, for one based on myth, we are helpless to save ourselves. Because, by separating us from what we really are, the illusion also severs us both from knowing what has to be done and from the capacity to knuckle down to it.

Meanwhile, we flock to the illusions of solutions—such symbols as the unity train chugging along the rusty rails of confederation’s traditional ties; bells heralding the expensive extravaganzas of Canada Day; catch phrases like “One Canada.”

But that only compounds the problem, because symbols are potentially explosive. No substitute for reality, by masquerading as such, they can postpone too long the task of grappling with the real issues. And when these finally intrude, the resultant disillusionment that the symbols into which we’ve poured our faith have failed can turn any confidence for solving the problems into a self-fulfilling defeatism.

Bilingualism as we’ve experienced it since the ’60s, is a poignant commentary by example of this scenario. Thus, it’s a meaningful symbol of Canada today and its challenge for tomorrow. First, because it represents a coming to terms with the myth-illusions of our country and their performance in reality.

The myth starches phrases like “We are a two-nation country” with the head-high principle of equality based on right, not numbers or economic clout. The reality suggests something quite different. For one Québécois, “When 1 cross the Ottawa River, 1 feel like a stranger there because then 1 have to be bilingual.” And for a francophone in Ontario “It’s as though French is a privilege, not a right.”

The Official Languages Act has tried to compensate for old habits and their resultant attitudes. In doing so, it’s exposed the anglophones in their hypocrisy.

To a large extent, though, it’s been an unconscious hypocrisy—even among those who confess: “I guess I always saw them as a conquered people . . . Now, with all this fuss, the press have aroused this deepseated bigotry that I had but didn’t know was there.”

Bilingualism is forcing people to realize that their actions and attitudes don’t measure up to their self-image as good Canadians. Many anglophones can’t see the point of the bilingualism program because

the status quo seems to work fine. They take it for granted that speaking English makes no difference to the French because few have experienced the subtle humiliation and outright frustration of being restricted in their self-expression or career advancement by having to speak a borrowed language. Through the bilingualism requirements for the federal civil service, these people are tasting both those formerly exclusive French feelings, being humbled by the process, and realizing that for bilingualism to be always one-sided changes an act of polite accommodation into one of submission.

It’s been a slow learning experience, made traumatic by being so long overdue, and aggravated by the federal government’s handling of the whole bilingualism program. Rather than ease the havoc of Canadians confronting their mental gap between myth and reality by at least acknowledging the gap’s existence, the government exacerbated it. It assumed that everyone would immediately understand and embrace the goals of bilingualism and

pounced on examples of default as though the perpetrators were deliberate hypocrites. If nothing else, the success of the book Bilingual Today, French Tomorrow stands as a monument to anglophones’ misunderstanding and the insecurity they felt in the face of their confusion.

It’s also a warning against cloaking a reality of misunderstanding and longstanding unconscious hypocrisy with an illusory expectation. Because when the cloak inevitably rips, the truth of failure comes as such a letdown that nobody can cope with its root causes. The fault doesn’t lie in the dirt under our fingernails, but in being too long alienated from the reality of the dirt.

By hiding from the realities of bilingualism now, we could so defeat ourselves by a sense of its failure that we’ll have no choice but to cling to empty symbols that augur the final defeatism. On the other hand, by tracing the genesis of the well - publicized anti-bilingualism backlash, we can deal with it. We can see that much of the antipathy for bilingualism in Western Canada translates as antagonism against Ottawa for shoving its will down westerners’ throats while continuing to ignore their own deep-seated grievances within confederation. And then we can trust and take more comfort from the high enrolment in French immersion courses not only in the West, but throughout the country.

This is the other reality of bilingualism: that it’s working. Despite the personal ordeal of working through past attitudes, despite the grind of French lessons and defensive cries that the program costs too much, the son of that P.E.I. businessman and thousands upon thousands of others are offering a response to the borderline separatist who says: “I’m a conditional Canadian. Unless there is real equality between the French and the English in this country, I will be a Québécois only.”

Thus bilingualism offers an alternative to magic formulae, phrases and symbols. It represents the hope that English Canadians can effect what it takes to bring the twonation myth alive in the here-and-now reality. Not with as much grace as we might have liked; but who said we had to be perfect?

Heather Menzies is the author of The Railroad’s Not Enough, published by Clarke, Irwin & Co.