I had two weird experiences on public transit this week that have resulted in a conclusion that I find deeply embarrassing.
The first incident involved a woman who is clearly not well. She might be mentally ill, or mentally disordered, or she might just be extraordinarily stupid. Anyway, I sat on the bench in Churchill Station in Edmonton waiting for the train when this woman sat down next to me. She had just suffered an indignity she told me (not in those words) at the hands of a non-English speaking service person in a fast food restaurant. She had asked for some honey sauce with her chicken fingers and she got some other type of sauce instead. She explained again to the person what she wanted and was tragically misunderstood. She was frustrated, time was wasted, it was terrible. I sympathized.
They ought to learn to speak English if they come here, she said. I did not sympathize with this comment, although I hadn’t really thought about why.
She pressed the point. If they come here and expect to live here, they ought to speak the language.
I don’t agree with you, I said. Still, she continued to press her point, more aggressively. She started using terms like “those people.”
I don’t agree with you, I repeated. Stop talking to me.
She didn’t stop talking and said the word “Paki” so I said, loudly, go sit somewhere else. Seriously. Shut up. And, while her face reddened, she did shut up.
I thought about this a little more. I personally don’t care if people don’t want to learn English. If they can get along without it, why bother? I think the concept of two official Canadian languages is retarded, particularly as Native Canadian languages are not among them. Official languages are just a bone to Quebec and a way to keep westerners out of the top seats in the federal government.
Anyway, if Euro-Canadians did not undertake to learn Cree, Blackfoot, and Dene in order to assimilate a hundred or so years ago, how can we refuse new Canadians the same right to retain their culture? It makes no sense. Also, how can we demand that Native Canadians change their lifestyle drastically for us while refusing to change to accommodate new Canadians? That is crazy.
How far should we go to accommodate other languages? Should we pay for new Canadians to have access to schools teaching in their mother tongue? Why not? English-speakers get to, so why not new Canadians? Should we pay for Native Canadians to be educated in their own languages? Absolutely. We should pay for that even before we pay to support new cultures coming in. Considering how Native Canadians have suffered as a result of the European invasion, it is only right.
Any argument against supporting multiple languages is bogus. All that is, seriously, is a ploy to maintain the current power structure so that white people will always hold the political cards and can maintain their unearned privilege. That’s all the current language and assimilation policies are about.
So. The second encounter was on a bus with a guy from the Maritimes who was down in Edmonton from the oil sands north of Fort McMurray. We chatted about this and that, mostly about how he has personally seen the pools of contaminants sitting in the sand, leeching into the Athabasca river system. Then he said: “You know, this is the first time I have had a casual conversation with anybody in Edmonton.” And I got to thinking: perhaps the expectation to learn English has something to do with our isolation from one another. Maybe if we weren’t so busy chasing a certain type of lifestyle, we’d have more time to hang out together. More time to consider public issues more closely. Maybe we could take long lunches with people who don’t speak English, and pick up a few new ideas. Maybe we would be impressed by these ideas and decide that an investment in supporting non-English languages in our society might enrich our culture. Wouldn’t we like our kids to speak more than one language? Wouldn’t we welcome the opportunity to think and feel in a global perspective rather than a Eurocentric one? Would we not be proud to be a test case to prove that a nation does not have to be of one mind, or one language, in order to govern itself?
I got off the bus and walked into The Bay in downtown Edmonton past a sign telling me that I can be served in at least a dozen languages. The people working behind the counter are probably learning English and are no doubt making an enormous effort to incorporate themselves into Canadian culture. I have made no such effort. No accommodation whatsoever to new Canadians and none to Native Canadians. I don’t even know Native Canadian history pre-invasion.
And here’s the thing: if I cannot understand people who speak other languages, it is not because they do not speak English, it is because I cannot speak their language. The failing is mine. The ignorance is mine. I am embarrassed.