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Cultural Diversity and Nationalism: The EU and Canada

While in the European Union, in recent years, there have been attempts made by Indo-European revivalists to revive a common lingua franca in order to both simplify life for Europeans in a borderless European Union; to the contrary, here in Canada, we have the English-French schism. Since the beginning of the 17th century, both France and Britain established colonies in North America, two nations that basically vied for continental dominance for nearly a century and a half after their implantation here. To make a long story short, the current state of cultural affairs in Canada is as Martin Marger (Race and Ethnic Relations, 2009) describes it: "Although other ethnic groups would subsequently contribute to Canada's population, the confrontation of English and French groups consumed the affairs of state from the outset of Canada's history and continues to play the preeminent role in intergroup relations... The historical and contemporary relations between French and English Canadians form the major focus of ethnic conflict in Canada." (p. 430) In short, Levi-Strauss' structural approach to anthropology applies, meaning that it seems that Canadian society, somehow, has organized itself into a sort of binary cultural opposition, with the Anglos opposing the Francos - or vice-versa.

While in Europe, the situation if evidently quite different with so many "national" languages and cultures thrown in the mix of cultural politics. Instead of having any main specific "national" contenders dominating any other of the "nation" members of the EU and subsequently potentially creating any division in the "united" European identity with all of its cultural diversity, there is more of a focus that is placed on its common cultural heritage. For instance, Cris Shore (Building Europe, 2000) discusses this point in question, in regards to the cultural politics of European integration, "if national diversity is to be celebrated, "it is always within a context that emphasises the way these national specifics fit into the overall picture." (p. 54) As an example of this, a recent EU pamphlet serves as a clear example how Europe is rewriting its history as one that possesses some collective sense of a "European civilization"; the idyllic pamphlet in question reads "the city of Venice, the paintings of Rembrandt, the music of Beethoven or the plays of Shakespeare are an integral part of a common cultural heritage and are regarded as common property by the citizens of Europe" (Shore 2000: 54).

This particular rewriting of European history by the EU seems quite over simplistic - if not a bit over the top - specially when viewed from a considerable distance here in North America, where those victims who fled a divided Europe during World War II still bear a living testament to the horrors of the anywhere from 50 to 70 million fatalities that occurred there. Yet, interestingly, despite the mass death of civilians in what is supposedly the deadliest conflict in human history - in spite of all this, the EU are still trying to convince its newly "united" EU citizens that they all somehow share a common cultural heritage. Rewriting history, nonetheless, is not as easy as it appears... European "culturalists" are going beyond national languages in order to find commonly shared cultural values in the EU, such as looking at their heritage in terms of classicism, humanism, the Renaissance, and importantly, the role that Christianity has played in each individual historically-culturally shaped national identity. Hence, to bring out these common elements to the forefront of the EU citizens in order for them to take a good look at themselves and somehow realize that these elements were indeed always there, is no small task.

Canada's English-French schism - by far! - does not compare to the age-old cultural divisions that exist in Europe. The double-jagged sword of the two separate Canadian English and Canadian French brands of "nationalism" that exist together in the land of the maple leaf, if anything, is a young feud that has nothing to compare with what divides Europeans. Another irony in Canada's bilingual and bicultural schism is that the two parties involved are on one side, French - the most Germanic of the Latin-derived languages, while the other is English - the most Latinised of the Germanic languages... The two languages and cultures were mutually engaging in cross-cultural exchanges and warfare for centuries before cohabitating next door to each other in Canada. You would think they would be the two ideal candidates for marriage after such a long courtship.

Ah well, the marriage did happen to a certain extent in at least one part of the country, where in Chiac - a highly anglicized French Acadian dialect - and my own native language, we have a perfect expression we often use, "Worry pas ta brayne..." (quite literally: "Do not worry your brain"). It seems appropriate to use it here...

The federal government has spent many millions of dollars over the years providing language training to workers whose jobs require them to speak both languages. To live in Ottawa is to know stories about government workers who spent months, even years, seconded to French language training only to return to a job in which the only language ever spoken is English. Or, in some cases, to quickly retire. But it is unusual to hear of an employee receiving full-time one-on-one training.
It only makes sense that a worker with a learning disability receive full-time one-on-one French language training if we agree that such a broad array of government job descriptions actually requires workers to be bilingual. The evidence is not convincing.
In a bilingual country, all government services must be available in both official languages, of course, and Canadians should have an equal opportunity to work for the federal government no matter which official language they speak. But current policies, under which all managers above a certain level must be bilingual, for example, go well beyond that, denying opportunities to many otherwise qualified Canadians.
Extreme individual cases, such as the Public Safety worker requiring expensive one-on-one training and the fine against Air Canada because a passenger was unable to order 7Up in French, also call for a realignment of language laws.
The embrace of bilingualism by many in Ottawa underscores that there is much to be gained from knowing both languages. But laws that push a concept to illogical extremes erode public support for bilingualism and need to be rethought.

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