Two Solitudes?

Notwithstanding its strengths, French’s permanent minority status here in Vanuatu has certainly allowed the perpetuation of some of the same kinds of injustice seen in Quebec in past generations. French has often received less attention than it should. The demonstrably superior education system has not received the recognition it deserves. The use of French in law, in government services and publications is often an afterthought.

Given my personal experience living on the cusp between two cultures, I am naturally sympathetic to Education Minister Charlot Salwai’s efforts to increase the French component in the core curriculum. Having benefited from a completely bilingual education, and having experienced the consequent benefits of a more nuanced, more cosmopolitan view of the world, I can only consider his plan to be a good thing.

That said, I am vividly conscious as well of the potential for division that language issues can create. In Canada in 1970, Quebec separatists conducted a series of murders, kidnappings and bombings that resulted in the imposition of martial law and the arbitrary arrest of thousands of activists, most of whom were guilty of nothing more than caring about their culture.

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

I grew up in a border town, in a border generation. One side of the river was majority French, the other English. My elders held tight to decidedly parochial views about their respective cultures. The English felt the ascendancy of their language (and subsequent control over business, government and education) was an inevitable and unavoidable result of their conquest of French Canada in 1760. The French, on the other hand, used their language as a cultural badge of courage, an undying assertion that they had never been conquered in spirit.

During the 1960s and 1970s an intense and occasionally violent cultural revival swept the French-speaking province of Quebec. Language became a weapon, leveraging access to public and private services.

Many of these reforms were necessary, long past due. Pierre Trudeau, the bi-cultural, bilingual Prime Minister at the time, had agitated for social justice in his youth. He was, nonetheless, a strong federalist, and opposed growing cries for Quebec’s secession from the Canadian confederation of provinces.

Vanuatu and Canada’s respective histories reveal more than a few parallels. Though different in detail, many common themes emerge. In Vanuatu, French and English camps were pitted against one another in the run-up to Independence, with the largely English Lini camp charging full-blown toward freedom and numerous, largely French-speaking, elements advocating a go-slowly (or not at all) approach.

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