British Columbia

Toujours la langue

Since my first visit in 2010, Quebec City has become a kind of second home for me. Motivated by a desire to learn more and--especially--practice speaking French, I have returned at least once, sometimes twice a year and stayed for as long as six months at a time. Maintenant, la chassure est sur l'autre pied, the shoe is on the other foot. A Quebec friend has come west to British Columbia to visit me. We met during my first visit to la ville de Québec, when I was searching for a conversation exchange partner, and for more than four years I have been her main anglophone contact. She can understand English much of the time, and read it with the aid of a dictionary, but without regular practice chez elle, she rarely speaks it.

A Québecoise photographs the Terry Fox Memorial at B.C. Place
What's more, she is a die-hard separatist. A lifetime supporter of the Parti Québecois, whose main goal is the separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada. An independent Quebec. This has been a long-standing Canadian issue, always at least on the back burner, and one that sometimes boils over as raucous referendum campaigns in which Quebeckers are exhorted by les oui and no sides. In 1970, the separatist movement turned violent when the FLQ (Front de libération du Québec) kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner and murdered a Quebec politician, Pierre LaPorte. The Prime Minister of that époque, Pierre Trudeau, imposed martial law and made lifetime enemies of many Quebeckers, including mon ami Québecoise.

So I was interested to see how my friend's first trip to western Canada would unfold, particularly what evidence she would find of the fact that Canada is officially un pays bilingue, a bilingual country, from coast to coast. Of course it isn't really. In the province of Quebec, almost 7 and a half million people either have French as their mother tongue or can conduct a conversation in French. Outside that province, the number drops to 2.5 million, and most of those speakers live east of Alberta. At our first lunch, however, my friend discovered that the waiter could communicate in French, at least enough to carry on a short exchange about how he learned the language as a semi-pro volleyball player training at a facility in Gatineau, Quebec. She heard her mother tongue spoken at the Museum of Anthropology, the hotel where she stayed, and the Vancouver aquarium. Most of these speakers were young, and at least one had attended a French immersion school. Much as my visitor and other Quebec residents detested the late prime minister Trudeau for having imposed martial law and for other actions too complex to describe here, his government supported the establishment of French immersion schools across the country. They are now so popular in most provinces that parents must line up for hours, even days, to enroll their children.

It's good to see that mon ami feels comfortable in British Columbia, one of only two or three forays she has made outside her province. On a hike through the woods, she freely sang out "bonjour" to those we passed, and the other hikers, while perhaps surprised, answered in kind--some awkwardly, some with confidence. Nothing like seeing how the other half lives to reconsider one's views. With more and more young people in Quebec learning English for practical reasons (and because of the influence of pop culture), and more students outside Quebec demanding French immersion, the idea of creating a sovereign Quebec for the sake of preserving the French language may have lingered past its "best before" date.

Two girls, two destinies

On Christmas day she opened her eyes for the first time since she had been beaten senseless and left naked in the snow on a First Nations reserve in northern Alberta five days before. Her alleged attacker, as the newscasters say, was arrested quickly, having been turned in by community members who knew him and perhaps his evil ways, too. But what he did has been done, and now that she is coming to consciousness, will she remember? How can her parents possibly explain? The police provide regular updates and report that the parents are doing the best they can, but that emotions are high because," don't really expect this to happen. She's only six. She's never had any harm."
     A little further west, on the coast of British Columbia, another community is grieving another little girl, seven, who was buried by boulders that slid her off the trail where she was hiking with her mother and a group of adults and children who regularly hiked together. Gone, just like that, in virtual minutes, Erin Moore, whose pictures show a smiling, rosy-cheeked sprite who liked wearing dangly earrings, who sported a tutu and running shoes for bike rides around her small town. A freak, inexplicable accident.
     Both these tragedies occurred in the week before Christmas. School was out so Erin could join the Monday hiking group. There'd been snow so the unnamed six-year old had been tobagganing with other kids before she ran home to change out of her wet clothes.
     The juxtaposition of the two events has simmered in my mind all week. In 1920, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung introduced the theory of synchronicity, the idea that apparently coincidental events may not be causally related but related by meaning. Coincidences become meaningful by twigging something in the observer.
     The obvious meaning seems to be that tragedy doesn't play favourites, anyone can be struck anywhere, anytime. Family photos of the Moore's show a smiling, athletic, picture-book perfect foursome, the parents said to be an academic couple. To protect the other child's name, her family has not been introduced. Should she recover fully, as we all hope, she will want to escape the identity she is known by now, ie, the six-year old victim of violent sexual abuse. But if conditions on the Paul reserve are like conditions on First Nations reserves elsewhere in the north, housing is minimal, substance abuse problems rampant. What else could begin to explain the behaviour of her alleged attacker except the kind of madness brought on by drugs and alcohol?
     That tragedy can happen to anyone is a true-ism. Nor does the juxtaposition of the two sad events have much meaning as a warning to parents to keep their kids safe. Hiking, tobagganing? These are the sort of things parents should encourage not discourage.
     As a writer of stories, I often lean on technique to find my way to understanding. What point of view will best reveal the truths that must lie beneath? Which character will provide the best guide? Where to start, in the future and look back, having let time work to make everything clearer? Or begin in the past and lead up to the two separate days when the lives of two separate families changed forever?
     Both communities held candlelight vigils, one in memory; one for healing. But it's the explanation that eludes everyone, and in both cases, it would be just too hard to accept that fates like these are God's will. What kind of God would will such cruel fates? Karma? The result of a badly ruptured society?  Of an especially rainy fall, one consequence having been the minute movement of earth beneath a boulder that may have budged for the first time since the retreat of the glaciers when Erin Moore stepped on it?
     No answers, but respectful cheers to these two spunky spirits, remembering one; hoping for the other.