Monday, July 24, 2006

Language Policy in the Canadian North

My main research interests tend to centre on issues that are at least somewhat related to English-French relations in Canada, which has led me to research and write fairly extensively on language policy. All of my writing has focused on English-French official bilingualism, and to a lesser extent, on the multilingual education programs followed in provinces such as Alberta. In recent months though, there have been a number of fascinating developments in the language policies of Nunavut.

About a month ago, the Nunavut government announced a very assertive new policy that will require proficiency in Inuktitut among its senior civil servants. If they don't learn the language by 2008, they will lose their jobs. The policy is driven by a desire to have the civil service fluent in the first language of 85% of the territory's residents. The policy will be progressively be extended down through the ranks of the civil service in future years.

While there is some protest associated with this policy, I think that the Nunavut government is on the right track. It is important to get an assertive language policy in place in the early years of establishing the new territorial government, or it will become very difficult to implement in the future - witness the problems of the federal government for proof of this. Indeed, there is an even stronger case for such a policy in a territory where the language the civil servants are expected to learn is the language of the overwhelming majority of the population.

Today's news has another neat tidbit on Nunavut's language policy development. The government is apparently considering official recognition of two forms of sign language, American Sign Language (ASL) and a unique form of Inuit sign language. It will prove interesting to see if this ends up being adopted in the legislation expected to be introduced next year. Canada's newest territory is certainly shaping up to be an exciting laboratory for language policy.

Recommend this Post

Gaily we march along with Scott and Hedy, but not Alexa

As luck would have it, one of our regular trips into Halifax for a bit of shopping and weekend fun coincided with this year's Halifax Pride festivities. The last time I attended Halifax Pride was in 2001, when it happened to coincide with my research trip to Nova Scotia. Back then, the parade lasted 13 minutes - a tiny bit shorter than the Toronto pride parade. Still, I liked the community atmosphere that prevailed over the more commercial atmosphere of larger events.

This year Pride was bigger and better - the parade lasted 20 minutes! Spectators lined the parade route on Brunswick, hanging out on the grounds of the Citadel (and thus, we could watch mini-parades while we waited, as there was a series of historical re-enactments going on at the Citadel). The atmosphere was festive, and the rain held off for the afternoon.

It is always interesting to see which politicians march, and which ones do not. When I lived in Toronto, there was an annual "will he or won't he" around Mayor Mel Lastman's participation. In Montreal it seemed as if every elected official was in the parade (if they elected dog-catchers, they would have been marching along). Not attending the parade could be interpreted as a slight to the gay community.

In Halifax, I recognized two elected MPs among the marchers: Liberal leadership contenders Scott Brison and Hedy Fry. While the NDP had a contingent, local MP Alexa McDonough was not with them. I'm not sure why Alexa was not part of the parade - maybe with all the major court battles cleared away for now, Pride is no longer seen as a major political event.

The Liberal delegates were an amusing pair, to be sure. Scott Brison was looking relaxed in a red t-shirt and jeans, marching along with an enthusiastic group of volunteers. He's the local boy, from neighbouring Kings-Hants, and openly gay, so it's not surprising that he'd feel relaxed and get a warm reception.

Hedy Fry, on the other hand, well let's just say "yikes!" I had heard stories about how Hedy dresses for Pride parades, as an enthusiastic participant in Vancouver. To be sure, she is well known for being supportive of gay causes, and managed to defeat Svend Robinson in the last election. But to be frank, she looked like a drag queen on a bad day! Her bright orange jumpsuit looked like it was made out of clingy snakeskin, and she paired it off with heels that looked to be at least 2.5 inches - not suitable walking gear, in my opinion! But she was there, and enthusiastic, so I suppose some credit is due. I'm not sure how many gay Liberal leadership convention delegates she is going to win over to her campaign, but she certainly seemed to be making an effort!

Recommend this Post

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Meanwhile in Congress, a vote to constitutionally beat up on gays comes up short

Despite the Shrub's best efforts, today's vote in the House of Representatives failed to get the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The vote was 236-187 in favour, but that was 47 votes short of the required majority. The opposition included 27 Republicans. This follows on the recent defeat, falling 11 votes short, of the Senate vote on the same type of motion.

It's still incredibly disheartening that a majority of American Congressmen think it's a good idea to write discrimination into their constitution. Fortunately there is still a buffer to block their worst impulses. If we're really lucky, the mid-term elections will widen that margin. Getting rid of Santorum would be a nice start!

Recommend this Post

If Zimbabwe had oil, nuclear weapons or strategic importance, would Mugabe be tolerated?

When was the last time that you heard about a serious effort to put international pressure on Zimbabwe? President Robert Mugabe has rigged elections, tolerated if not actively encouraged illegal land seizures, and presided over severe repression of civil rights. And yet there appears to be no concentrated international attention on what goes on in Zimbabwe. You certainly don't see the United States threatening to enact "regime change".

While it pales in comparison with his numerous other human rights offences, last week Mugabe's government revised its "sexual deviancy" laws to make it a criminal offence for two people of the same sex to hold hands, hug, or kiss. While gays and lesbians in Canada are fortunate enough to be protected by Charter rights, all the way up to marriage, it seems that the pendulum is swinging the opposite direction in much of the rest of the world, egged on by pronoucements emanating from Washington and the Vatican about the "evils" of same-sex relationships. It serves as a useful reminder about how important it is to defend these rights in Canada, and to resist any effort to dilute them.

Recommend this Post

Thursday, July 13, 2006

"Oh my God, you killed Kennedy! You bastard!"

I'm not usually one for gratuitous blog links, but this is too funny to resist.

Check out The Frog Lady's South Park caricatures of the current Liberal leadership contenders. (The entries start on July 10.)

Perfectly appropriate for the silly season, in my humble opinion.

Recommend this Post

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Charest, Boisclair and the Boredom of Overanalyzed Words

As many are no doubt aware, PQ leader Andre Boisclair is jumping all over Jean Charest for comments made on a trip through Europe to the effect that Quebec has "the means" to become an independent country. Separatists are cheering this statement as an admission that the politics of fear from past referendum campaigns can no longer be used. William Johnson, in today's Globe (behind the subscriber wall) is questioning Charest's federalist credentials for failing to also mention the importance of abiding by constitutional law, etc.

But does any of this matter, or is this just a bunch of bored journalists, politicians and columnists during the silly season?

As you might have guessed, I see it as the latter. As QLP spokespeople have pointed out, few in Quebec question whether the province might be economically viable as an independent country. But the big issue remains whether Quebec would be as well off as an independent state as if it were part of Canada, and this will be the issue that would be presented to voters in (yet) another referendum. The message from the federalist camp shifted to this line of argumentation quite a while ago. Moreover, as editorialists like Andre Pratte have pointed out, the issue is not just whether Quebec could do "as well" as if it were part of Canada, but whether it would be "better off" and thus worth risking such a big change. Of course, there are also issues of identity politics and recognition at stake as well, which would be the main arguments of the separatist camp.

So cool your jets. Nothing has changed. There is just not much to report on these days. Crack open a beer or a bottle of rose wine and read Paul Wells' or Calgary Grit's fashion reports from the Calgary Stampede.

Recommend this Post

Friday, July 07, 2006

"Call me Steve": The Nicknaming of a Prime Minister

The Shrub's friendly diminutive for our illustrious leader - Prime Minister Steve, as he shall henceforth be called - rings some interesting historical bells.

A couple of episodes that spring to mind:

1) LBJ used to call Pearson (who he didn't like, particularly after his criticism of the Vietnam War) by his first name, Lester. Pearson never used this name, preferring to be called Mike - indeed, this is the title of his memoirs.

2) FDR used to call William Lyon Mackenzie King (who he did like) simply Mackenzie, a nickname that nobody else used. King's close friends used to call him Rex. However, he was so touched by the use of a familiar term that he couldn't bring himself to correct FDR.

Possible lessons we could draw from this:

1) American Presidents can call Canadian Prime Ministers whatever they like.

2) Stephen Harper is on his way to being classed with other great, and misnamed, Prime Ministers like Pearson and King.

Hmmm... neither of those is a particularly comforting thought.

Recommend this Post

French-only signs in TMR

According to the CBC, the Town of Mount Royal, a very posh little enclave on the north side of the mountain in Montreal, has caved in to the Office de la langue francaise and painted over the English on its bilingual street signs.

This goes farther than the OLF demand that French be predominant, and seems to be an act of pique on the part of the town council. Given the reaction of neighbouring Cote-Saint-Luc, which is retaining its bilingual signs given similar warnings, this seems like an outburst of exasperation on the part of TMR authorities, who are tired of the language police measuring the size of the English on their signs. Personally, I think it's a bad decision - better to continue to work within the margins of the law, than completely abandon the right to use English in addition to French.

I'm still working through my thoughts from my stay in Ireland, where I participated in an international conference on language law and language rights. At that conference, I was exposed to a whole host of different national, regional and international attempts to protect and promote minority languages, with widely varying degrees of success. To make matters more interesting, the Galway conference was itself a microcosm of language promotion, with simultaneous interpretation provided in English, French and Irish, with many of the session chairs from NUI Galway - all of them fluent in English - speaking in Irish to a crowd lacking any Irish-speakers. The challenge of revitalizing the Irish language makes promotion of French in Canada seem easy, and I'll have more on that in a future post.

Recommend this Post

Thursday, July 06, 2006

European Travelogue, Part 2: The Dance of the Hypocrites, or Unenforced Laws

A thought occurred to me while in Florence a week ago: why does the "grey" zone exist in law? By this, I mean a law that is routinely flaunted, known to be so by law-enforcement agents and politicians, and the flaunting actively tolerated, but the law is never rescinded. In Canada, this is most vividly present in our marijuana laws. In many countries in southeast Asia, it applies to laws regarding gay sex (especially where tourists are involved). In Italy, it seems to apply to the sale of fraudlent merchandise.

Essentially, this is what goes on in the heart of Florence. Along every major street in the pedestrian core, dozens of African immigrants sell knock-off handbags and sunglasses on the street. The handbags are laid out on sheets, the sunglasses on collapsible cardboard. Every 15-20 minutes, a pair of carabinieri officers will come strolling, or driving down the streets, the sheets will be drawn together around the handbags, and the cardboard sheets folded up, and the officers will walk past a row of vendors holding their sheets. Nobody is arrested or spoken to most of the time. After the officer moves on, the commercial activity begins again.

Despite signs indicating that the purchase of fradulent items is illegal, tourists flock to these vendors, purchasing large numbers of them - which makes one think that this is "unofficially" considered a key part of the local tourist economy. But it means that these vendors, although de facto allowed to continue their business, are constantly under threat of arrest. One can only imagine what this means in terms of their sense of personal security.

I find this failure to enforce the law to be entirely hypocritical. If a law is not important enough to enforce, it should be removed from the books. It hardly seems just to punish a few random offenders, yet not only not seek out others, but to actively ignore activity which is blatantly occuring. I admit that I'm happier to have obsolete or unjust laws remain unenforced, but it would be far better if more lawmakers had the courage to revise statutes and by-laws, rather than allowing these grey zones to continue.

Recommend this Post

European Travelogue, Part 1: "Authenticity" in the Tourist Experience

Over the years, much ink has been spilled on the topic of the "authenticity" of culture, artifacts, experiences and tourism. This has particular resonance in the field of public history, particularly where historical reconstructions are concerned. As Alan Gordon at the University of Guelph has observed, there is a delicate balance that has to be struck between the expectations of visitors and faithfulness to history if a site (such as the reconstruction of Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons in Ontario) will be perceived of as "authentic" by visitors. This could be something as simple as the degree of cleanliness of the site.

I found myself reflecting on this as I travelled around Italy over the past two weeks, and found myself implicitly judging how "authentic", as opposed to "touristy", different cities were. For example, walking around a city early on a Monday morning, while people were heading off to work and bustling about, felt like an "authentic" experience, while listening to a cover band play Simon & Garfunkel tunes to the tourists in front of the Uffizi gallery in Florence decidedly did not. Wandering the back canals of the Cannaregio district of Venice felt like an "authentic" experience of the city - feeding pigeons with the thousands of tourists in Piazza San Marco didn't. Bologna, which gives the impression of a working city with few tourists, felt more "authentically" Italian than tourist-ridden Florence.

This is hardly a new observation on my part, but it did drive home in a very personal way the challenges faced by tourism promoters. Once a certain degree of success is reached in terms of attracting tourists, cities seem to lose a part of what made them special in the first place. I'm not sure how, or if, a healthy balance can be struck (although one can always travel in the off-season for a less frantic experience), but this commodification of the "essential" experience of a given place/community seems destined to lead to the loss of these same qualities.

Recommend this Post

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Sunday shopping and the early-20th century values of Nova Scotia

Hello again, gentle readers. I'm back from three fascinating weeks spent in Ireland and Italy, which has provided me with ample fodder for posts on language policy, "authenticity" in tourism, and football. But I'm still a little jet-lagged, and will ramp up to full blogging speed with a CBC story I saw on my flight back to Canada yesterday.

Living in Sackville, New Brunswick puts me dead centre in the Maritimes. We do most of our grocery shopping in neighbouring Amherst, Nova Scotia which is a 10 minute drive away, just across the border (where the kind people at Atlantic superstore actually stock fresh herbs, unlike the local store, where even parsley is unavailable). The bridge to PEI is less than a half-hour drive away. This makes political events in the other provinces of keen interest to us. Hence my interest in Nova Scotia's archaic Sunday shopping law. Nova Scotia is the sole hold-out of the provinces to ban Sunday shopping, a decision recently re-affirmed by a close plebiscite vote in October 2004.

It's one of those cases where rural-urban values splits come into play. Urban areas, especially Halifax, want to be able to shop on Sundays. Rural areas are more opposed to this, and want legislation to force their views on the others. And so a blatantly Christian religion-based law is still enforced in the province. The governing Conservatives, with a reduced minority government, are still defending the law. The opposition NDP wants the issue referred by the government to the courts for a ruling on its constitutionality, rather than forcing Atlantic SuperStore, which is challenging the law, to bear the costs.

Here's another idea. Why don't the NDP and Liberals cobble together a bill to rescind the law, and show that they have the courage of their convictions? The no-Sunday shopping law is archaic, and should be rescinded. Hiding behind the Charter and the courts is a rather pathetic substitute for decisive political action. The 2004 referendum only bound the government not to act during the last mandate - and we're into a fresh one. It's time to pull the province kicking and screaming into the 21st century (or even the late 20th). If stores don't want to open on Sunday (or Monday, or Saturday) for religious or personal reasons, that should be their prerogative, but it should not be the result of government coercion.

Recommend this Post