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Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Fair Country

The other day, I had an interesting conversation with my son. He was working on a history project about Quebec, and he made – what to me was a startling statement.

He said, “The shops in Montreal have signage in French to preserve Quebec's unique culture and heritage.”

I asked him what he felt about the controversy in Mumbai that all the cabbies should know Marathi.

“That’s wrong,” he replied.

I said I didn’t see any difference in Quebecers’ insistence on French and the chauvinist elements in Mumbai insisting on the blanket usage of Marathi.

I asked him if one is right, how can the other be wrong?

He said that in Quebec it’s the law.

I asked, whether a wrong act become right if it becomes a law?

“I don’t know,” he shrugged.

He lost interest in the conversation because he wanted to play Farmville on facebook.

Che’s 12. A typical response to something that he doesn’t want to get involved with is, “Whatever,” followed by a shrug.

As I read John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country I was reminded of this conversation I had with Che.

In the final chapter of the book A Circle of Fairness, Saul explains Quebec’s concept of interculturalisme. He says, “I am more comfortable using the term interculturalisme than multiculturalism to describe how Canada works. It isn’t quite right, but it comes close.”

He quotes from a report by Gerard Bouchard and Charles Taylor about the ethos of Quebec. “The wisest and most effective method of dealing with cultural differences is not to hide them but to show them.”

“A particular responsibility falls upon the ethno-cultural majority to build relationships with immigrants.”

“And how are immigrants to be dealt with? On the basis of ‘four civic virtues.’ Equite – equity or fairness; welcome, getting to know the other, moderation and wisdom; patience. After all, such great changes of life require time in order to be digested by all sides.”

The book raises several questions that are at the core of Canada’s identity and nationhood. Of course, many of the issues raised would be contentious to most Canadians and don’t have the same resonance to a newcomer.

At one level, I found Saul’s interpretation of the Canadian way an attempt at romanticising the non-Western forms of civilisation and society formation.

Yet his interpretation explains so many present dilemmas of the western world that are (surprisingly) absent in Canada – issues of identity, the existence of the ‘other’ in a society of multiple minorities.

Canadians believe in fairness and inclusion; even if on occasions, Canada seemingly doesn’t.

Check Maher Arar's new venture Prism.

Image: Maher Arar: http://thewe.cc/thewei/images2/aljazeerah_inf_nov2003_images/a30.jpg

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