Friday, August 31, 2007

lingua franca

Canada, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a bilingual country. If you are an Anglophone in Ottawa, like myself, you are probably hyper-aware of this fact. Coming from a unilingual small town in Ontario, followed by attending a unilingual southwestern Ontario university (I am sure Francophones the world over shudder at the way we pronounce “Laurier”), I grew up in the world of dominant culture English-language privilege. In 1995, I didn’t understand why so many people in Quebec wanted to separate.

In 2000, when I lived in Scotland, many of my closest friends were French Canadian. We hung out with Australians and Southern Americans, and we all learned about each others’ cultures. It was the first time that I really appreciated that French Canadians weren’t just the same as us in another language – they really have a whole different culture. It was also the first time that the Francophones had a sense of being Canadian, and not just Quebecois. When they came to visit me back in Canada, I took them to Lake Huron, and Bru looked at the lake so big it’s a sea, and then turned to me and said “this is part of my country,” realizing it for the first time.

So, anyway, here I am in Ottawa – a wiser and more cosmopolitan (ha!) person than I was at the age of 22. In keeping with the bilingual mandate of the university, speeches given by Anglophones at law school and conferences were often begun by a short “bonjour, je suis très hier d’être ici aujourd’hui” – before switching into English. Sometimes, the accent of the person who says that, especially if it’s a visitor from America or parts more west in Canada, can be pretty hideous. I was talking recently with a Francophone friend, who finds this practice totally offensive – she would rather not have people try at all than to put in the token effort of their well-rehearsed 2 lines of French to get the language police off their backs.

Coming from the point of view of an Anglophone, I always thought it was good that people tried to speak French. Most of the people who open with the French one-liner would not be able to deliver their entire speech in French – so they are going as far as they can. Learning a language is a long and on-going process, and somewhere between the point of being unilingual and bilingual, you have to muddle through in your second language, or you’ll never get to point b.

The discussion on tokenism came up in response to a Anglo friend of ours who did one of those one-liners, and had a French-speaking colleague mutter “I’m sorry, I don’t speak English” – which completely crushed her after she’d made the effort to speak in her second language, being scared of getting it wrong and being perceived as stupid.

I, and many other unilingual Anglophones, have realized that to really succeed in this town we need to learn French. Suddenly those years of high school French (which I at least took all the way to grade 13) seem awfully far away. But this is what offends my friend – people who only learn French to pass their government language tests and “get by in this town” – but don’t really appreciate that it’s a whole language that embodies a way of thinking, as all languages do. But it seems to me that many people don’t even realize that about their own language. How many Anglophones have read great French poetry?, she asks. But how many Anglophones have read great English poetry?, I couldn’t help but respond.

I am in the linguistic majority. Not just in Canada, but in the world. Anglophones experience a great level of privilege by being able to expect that other people should learn and speak their language, rather than the other way around. I saw it in Ecuador, when people would apologize for their bad English, and I would always be amazed that I had to tell them that my Spanish was the problem – I don’t think most Anglo tourists that they encountered would have shared my sentiment. In Norway, people speak amazing English, but my Grandmother was still upset when not all of the museums were in our language. I think that it is generally bumping up against this privilege – the assumptions of entitlement – that make Francophones frustrated with token French phrases.

I am going to continue to learn French. I honestly don’t know if I will ever be able to read great French poetry, but I hope that I will be able to laugh when my Francophone friends make jokes. I am going to do this both because I need to for my job, but also because I live in a bilingual country, and I want to experience it fully. While I am learning, I will say things poorly when I get the courage to say them at all – and I hope that Francophone will appreciate the spirit in which the effort is given and encourage me, because I will never get their jokes if they don’t help me through the baby steps.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

the gift of stuff

It’s that time of year again – Ecclesiax craft workshop time. Last year, Sarah and I came up with this brilliant idea (if I do say so myself) to lead craft workshops that would empower people to make sustainable Christmas gifts (check my posts from last November for the neat little gift-giving guide we put together). We had fairly good feedback, so are trying to come up with a roster to run another session this year.

This has led me to examine how successful we were last year – because just because it’s a craft doesn’t mean it’s sustainable. The overall goal of this gift-giving philosophy should be to make crafts that are using recycled materials, or in some other way leave less of an environmental footprint than buying stuff. If you are going to Michael’s and buying a plain picture frame or box to decorate, how’s that lighter on the earth than buying one that is pre-decorated?

As I’ve been trying to sort through this sustainable craft conundrum, I’ve been amassing stuff for the upcoming garage sale. I couldn’t help but notice that a large percentage of what we’re passing on was, at one point, a gift. So here’s the rub: I love gifts. I love giving gifts and I love receiving gifts. However, our culture of gift-giving ends up with people having more stuff in their lives than they possibly know what to do with. I have definitely been a giver who has either a) thought I was giving the perfect gift, but I was wrong; or b) was so right that it was perfect that the recipient already had one, and I was giving them a double.

I also struggle with imposing my tastes on other people – what’s the good of giving someone a homemade recycled whatever if it’s just going to sit there and they’re not going to use it? Wouldn’t it be better to give them a store-bought plastic whatever else that they really want? I also like practical gifts - but I know that some people don't want to receive a frying pan for Christmas.

So, I don't know what to do. I would like to give something that is homemade, useful, and that the person will love, but it doesn't always happen. So, I am trying to give less gifts, and think about what I am giving and the person I am giving it to - but let me warn you that your baby will receive a quilt from me whether it needs it or not . . . and you better like it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

thou dost Protest too little (?)

Generally, I don’t go to protests, but a lot of people that I love and respect do. I have participated in one official protest, and one other “rally” in my life. The protest was against the Iraq war – a march from the Hill to the American Embassy and back. There were signs and cheers, and it was all very friendly. Canada didn’t join the war – so that was good. The other rally was in high school – the provincial government was going to close down our hospital, and our students’ council organized an event with all of the students in town (2 high schools, 3 elementary) to “hug the hospital” – we formed a big human chain around it. It was a standard “media event” – we created something for the news to capture, and then talked about why we were doing it - I was the spokesperson for our school, and had my 2 seconds of media fame. The hospital survived the cuts. So, I am 2 for 2 – you’d think I’d be a great believer in the power of protest. But I am not a protestor, though at the same time I am fascinated by protests, and the dialogue that surrounds them.

My reaction to protests, and particularly those in the amorphous anti-globalization vein, has had a profound effect on my life. When I was deciding if I was going to go to law school, the Quebec City summit was going on (G-8? I’m not even sure). People that I knew went to protest. They participated in alternate forums. They were radical cheerleaders. They took indie media videos. They got tear-gassed ad naseum. And back in Waterloo, we saw the news coverage. McDonalds was vandalized. Fences were pushed. The police responded. The people back home tsked at the hooligans, and the leaders inside of the fence did their thing, coming to the same conclusion as they would have if the people were not there facing rubber bullets on the other side. All of this left me deeply discouraged and feeling like if the system was going to be changed, it had to happen from the inside. So, off to law school I went.

Anyway, here I am on the inside, but I still can’t just write off protests. I believe that radical change, from the women's suffrage movement around the world to the civil rights movement in the United States and the anti-apartheid fight in South Africa wouldn't have happened if people hadn't got out and made some noise. And I am still fascinated by the noise they are making - when the G-8 met at Gleneagles, I combed the Guardian daily during the lead up and the event, and I’ve found myself doing the same thing with Montebello. But still, while I follow the dialogue closely, and while I respect many people who are out there marching, I have no desire to join them.

I think part of my antipathy comes from my experience that the “average person on the street,” as far as I have been able to discern, feels alienated from anti-globalization protestors. They don’t understand the cause, and they don’t feel like the protestors are speaking for them. I have experienced this reaction from people I know and have talked to, and it's evident in the comment stream on the CBC website today (which is a bit less abrasive than the average G&M comment stream). I guess this is my pragmatism talking – I don’t want to participate if I don’t see it working. But, as I noted above, there have been protest movements that have worked - so the question is - how can anti-globalization protestors get there?

I wrote in response to Wheat Sheaf’s blog that protestors have to be informed and creative. They have to be informed because, by choosing to participate in the protest, they have taken on a role as a public figurehead for the movement that they are out supporting. Anyone at a protest could have a news microphone shoved in their face, and their response will affect the way the movement is viewed. I’ve often noted in media coverage that there is a sense of confusion as to what the message of the protest actually is – this is partly because when a protest is against a multilateral summit, there is not going to be one grievance, or one cohesive message. However, at other times, it’s because the protestors don’t know, themselves, why they’re there. Protestors are painted poorly when they can't explain themselves coherently – they have to prove that they are not “uncivilized,” as the Chair of the Canadian Council of CEOs has suggested.

They have to be creative because the media is going to grab onto the most sensational thing that it can – and if that is window-breaking, a thousand peaceful protestors are going to get lost in the shuffle. Protestors also have to be creative because, even if their protest is completely peaceful, it’s one of a million news stories coming in - and it has to stick.

But somehow that creativity has to make sense too – when I was responding to Wheat Sheaf, I commented on Fathers 4 Justice. They dress up like superheros and climb government buildings, to bring attention to what they see as a mother-centred bias in custody cases. These guys feel passionate about their kids, which I respect. But, I don’t know if they are doing their cause any good – their mode of protest just seems somewhat random and disconnected from what they are fighting for. You have to hear an interview with one of them to understand why they’re doing the superhero thing (dads are like heros to their kids . . .). If you don’t hear the interview, they just don’t make sense.

I don't know if this opinion is in any way helpful, but I felt like I should throw something into the dialogue that I've been watching so closely.

Monday, August 20, 2007


I might add a comment to this in a bit, but I thought I'd post it. Asad sent it to me in response to an e-mail asking how he was adjusting to life in Canada after spending close to a year in Ethiopia.
How the World Shapes Up

Friday, August 17, 2007

A woman's place . . . .

The other day, there was an article in the Globe and Mail about the fact that female lawyers are killing themselves with stress. Women are literally hiding heart attacks from work because they don’t want to be perceived as weak. So, while we make up over half of the new lawyers in Canada, women are still leaving practice at over twice the rate that men are.

This is not news, though the extent still shocked me (actually hiding cancer and heart attacks . . . .). Throughout law school, we were aware of what it meant to be a woman n law. Women who were thinking of having children in the near future, or who already had children, had to decide how they were going to balance careers and family (men were thinking about these issues too, but not with the same urgency). I’ve held to the belief that, through the force of sheer numbers, we are eventually going to change the profession. If there is a need for lawyers (a debatable point, but we’ll let it stand for now), and more and more of them are women, the profession is going to eventually have to change to be a more woman-friendly environment. And, men are going to benefit from this as well – most men that I know would also like a challenging career, while at the same time having a life.

What surprised me, then, was not the content of the article, but the comments posted in the online discussion forum. I always make the mistake of reading the comments in Globe and Mail discussions, and I am always discouraged, so I shouldn’t have been surprised . . . but this was shocking. Ninety percent of the comments were full of venom – at lawyers, at women, and at female lawyers. People were actually saying things like “if you can’t handle the heat, get back in the kitchen,” and “these women have been whining for equality for years, but now they can’t hack it. Why should the system change just because they’re weak?”

This commentary was eye-opening to me. It shows (in case the McLeans “Lawyers are Rats” articles the other week hadn’t made it abundantly clear) how little regard the profession is held in by the public. That, I can deal with, for now. What I find most upsetting was the hatred directed towards female professionals – the delight in their downfall and disregard of their pain.

Something systemic is still very wrong. This reminded me of recent news stories about the shortage of women in China, since under the one-child policy, parents are aborting girls so their one child will be a son. It reminded me of the fact that there are fewer women in Canadian politics than there were in the 1990s. We’ve come a long way, baby, but we’re not there yet.

(PS – on a happier note – check out a new feminist law firm, being launched by some of my former classmates. Opting out of the established firm system is one way that young women are re-shaping the profession in their own image: ).

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Beauty beauty everywhere.

Sometimes I forget. But it's there, when I stop to look, quietly waiting to be noticed.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Taking Duddy to the Mat

I was at a barbecue the other day, and somehow got into a conversation with a mathematician about Shakespeare. This guy was definitely no dummy, but he said that he found reading Shakespeare in high school English to be a very discouraging experience – that being thrown a text in language that was 400 years old was alienating, and felt like he was being asked to run before he could walk.

Then, I was talking to my folks last night, and mentioned that I was reading “The Favourite Game” by Leonard Cohen, which I had grabbed off of mom’s shelf a few years ago. I told them that I was glad I hadn’t tried to read it in high school or university when I loved Cohen’s poetry, but had no understanding of Montreal or Jewish culture, which both feature prominently in the book. It would have been like my first attempt at “The Edible Woman,” when I was so far removed from the context that I was just bored, and had to wait another 6 years or so to give it another try and understand why mom loved it when she was in her 20s.

This line of conversation led naturally to Mordecai Richler. I, like most kids in Ontario, read the Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in high school, and I didn’t get it. I didn’t touch Richler again for over 10 years, until I picked up Barney’s Version, which I quite enjoyed. I commented to the folks that maybe it didn’t make sense to teach Duddy to a bunch of high school kids in Bruce County – I probably read more than any other student in my class, and I still found the book completely uninspiring.

And what about Shakespeare? I am a firm believer that Shakespeare’s work has universal themes that we can all relate to, and that he really was a master of word-play. But I didn’t learn these things from high school English class. Dare I say I learned them despite high school English class? I learned to appreciate Shakespeare from good film and live adaptations – Baz Lurhman’s Romeo and Juliet, lively Midsummer Night’s Dream in Shakespeare in the Park, and through literature and acting classes taken in university (and because I was a freak-child who got her mother to read Shakespeare to her when she was 8).

Mom countered my suggestion that Duddy should be shelved with the proposition that if kids didn’t get exposed to Richler (and Shakespeare, I assume) in high school, many of them would never get exposed to it. Most kids weren’t going to grow up like me to do a degree in English literature and continue to read as a major form of entertainment throughout their lives.

So here's the issue that these conversations have left me pondering – is it worth exposing high school students to good literature that isn’t going to speak to them if it will turn them off of reading altogether? Is it more important to ensure that everyone is exposed to a certain number of classics, both Canadian and otherwise, or should the schools strive first and foremost to engender a love of books as a place where we can explore truths and philosophies, and learn about the world around us, even if some of those books seem more "pop"? I think this strikes on some pretty deep issues of what education is for – is it for making sure we all come out of school with universal exposure to a number of texts, facts, etc., or is it there to make us think, and to give us the tools to continue to think throughout our lives? Or, is it somewhere in between?

And a final question – if you buy into my proposition that Duddy should be shelved, what books are good for high school English? And does Shakespeare get to stay just because he’s special, or should his ubiquitousness in the classroom be examined as well?

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Environmental Anxiety

Yesterday I was reading about the record-breaking number of severe weather events in 2007. Today, I’ve been learning all about the bioaccumulative and neurotoxic nature of certain persistent organic pollutants. Anxiety is weighing on me like the air during a smog warning.

This environmental anxiety is not a new feeling for me. When I spent my summers researching environmental law, I found that it was more depressing that my studies on genocide and war crimes. The depression comes from the immensity of environmental problems, and the apathy of a large portion of the population. At least with genocide, there’s near-universal consensus that it shouldn’t be done.

When I told Paul yesterday that climate change was causing me anxiety, he said that he is cautiously optimistic that we’ll get ourselves out of this mess before we pass the point of no return. I am not as optimistic. I am not convinced that we haven’t already passed the point of no return, for one thing. And for another thing – I think that at this point in time, we are so far away from reversing the trend of destruction that if we haven’t reached that critical point, we’re not really doing much to ensure we don’t. I am constantly dismayed by how many educated and intelligent people don’t even recycle, if it’s going to mean walking a few extra steps. This is not the behaviour of a culture on the cusp of change.

The anxiety also arises from knowing that, even though I do more than most, I am still part of the problem more than I am part of the solution. I don’t buy wrapping paper or air-condition my house and I frequently bicycle, but I still eat meat, own a car (ok, not right now, but I did, and I will again soon), and buy cheap stuff that I don’t need at the mall. And I know that these behaviours are not sustainable, at least not at the rate we do them in North America, and people are beginning to do them in emerging economies around the world.

The sewers in Bangladesh are choked with plastic bags. There were tornados in Brooklyn yesterday. People up north are getting cancer from pesticides that were produced and used thousands of miles away. I re-use my coffee cup, but I know it’s not enough.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Zen and the Art of Closet Organization

A few of my friends have just moved, or are preparing to move. We are also in the stage of thinking to prepare to move – the plan is that sometime in the near future, we’ll get ourselves together and shop for a house with a yard.

All this packing and moving has got me thinking about STUFF. I touched on this last week a bit, when I was thinking about historical sites it led to reflections on artifacts and heirlooms. I am a person who acquires. I don’t shop too much (I don’t never shop, but it’s not a major form of recreation for me), but I shop enough, and I receive gifts, and I am a pack rat. And the stuff accumulates.

The first issue is gifts. I saw on facebook that Jazz’s birthday is coming up. Since she is a lovely girl, and a member of the extended family, I thought it’d be nice to give her a little something. We won’t be actually seeing her, but we’ll be seeing J and R, and they’ll be seeing her sometime soon, I presume. I like to mark birthdays. I have a bit of a “gift cupboard” of things that we have bought on sale or wherever to give as gifts when the moment seems right. There’s a very cute little picture frame in there that I thought would be perfect. So, I wrapped it up, and was writing a little card, when I paused. I think she’d like it, but I don’t know. And if we start giving them gifts for birthdays (something we haven’t done generally) then they might feel like they should give us gifts. Then this trend gets set, and everyone is trying to think of some token to buy every year, and we end up with more stuff. I think that I’ll just write her a card.

I try to be sensitive in my gift-giving. I have this internal war every year at Christmas between wanting to give something that I think is socially responsible or practical, and giving whatever the person actually asked for. I try to give what they asked for, because we have all received gifs that just aren’t on. There are gifts that are given with such good intent that you feel honoured to receive them, but don’t know when you’ll ever use this item. But then, there it is – and the intent is imbued in the gift, which makes it special, but it ends up being one more thing sitting on a shelf or in a drawer. So, how long do you keep it in the shelf or the drawer? When can you set the item free to someone else who might appreciate it more? I’ve been amazed by the response to some of our Freecycle posts – things that PJ received (people like to give him toys and novelty items) that he doesn’t quite know what to do with – but there are several people who are really excited about these things when we make an offer to pass them on.

The other reason I build up stuff is my pack-ratism. This comes from both an economic and an environmental conservation frame of mind. I want to keep old boxes and gift-wrap to use but somehow, without ever buying gift-wrap, I never manage to make a dent in the supply that I have. There is always more, and there is an overflowing box of it in the closet. I hate to get rid of yogourt tubs, but at the rate that we consume yogourt, we produce way more than we would ever need for a freezer full of leftovers! I don’t like to recycle paper that has a blank side and could still run through the printer – but the paper piles up. It seems like no matter how much I try to control the flow of disposable/reusable products into my house, they always come in at a greater level that I can actually reuse.
For all of these reasons, I have a lot of stuff. And I realize I’m talking about all this accumulation like it’s a bad thing, and I haven’t really explored why. I know that a lot of people think there isn’t really anything wrong with having a lot of stuff. I think that it’s good to keep the stuff under control for a variety of reasons. The first is the obvious – by bringing less stuff into our lives in the first place, we are using fewer resources and having a smaller impact on the environment. However, as I mentioned, a lot of the stuff that fills my house isn’t from us “consuming” in the usual sense of going out and buying things. Some of it is even from my desire to consume less – keep the wrapping paper so I don’t have to buy more.

Regardless of where it originates, I sometimes feel like I am buried in STUFF. I will be sitting at work, out of the house, and have the sense that a pile of papers and odds and ends is waiting to pounce on me when I go home. I really think that someone we are affected spiritually/ psychologically by being surrounded by too much clutter. I don’t know if it’s because a cluttered space leads to a cluttered mind, or what. But I do know there is a great satisfaction in doing the purge. My friends who are moving talk with glee about getting rid of all those class notes that they saved “just in case” and haven’t looked at for 5 years, and I’ve felt it in when I’ve handed off clothes, books, or CDs to someone who’s ready to put them to use.

I waver back and forth on the issue of the stuff. The “but it was a gift,” the “just in case” and the “it’d be a shame to waste it” impulses run deep in me. But then I get the urge to simplify, to declutter, and to downsize. I try to take advantages of these urges to purge, I try to actually use the things that I am carefully saving for just in case, and I try to control the amount of stuff that comes into my life. But there’s always more, and I worry that if we move to that house with a yard, we’ll just fill up the basement with gift-wrap and yogourt tubs.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

out of the overflow of the heart (?)

I was looking at the “description” of my blog, right up there under the title, and I realized that the one thing that I said I was going to blog about, and haven’t, is God. This isn’t because I don’t have thoughts about God, but because I keep them somewhat guarded. My spiritual life is not something I like to talk about in polite company.

And then, sometimes, I wonder if I even have a spiritual life these days – which is why it’s weird that I’ve become a bit of a default pulpit supply at Ecclesiax . I do not regularly read the Bible, because I question its authority and have rarely found it speak to me. I do not regularly pray, because I feel like I am speaking to a wall. So, who am I to give spiritual instruction?

And yet – I do. I get up there, and I say things and they challenge people. I am the opposite of Moses, who had no words, but faith. I have the words, but the faith is sparse. And so I feel like I should use my gifts for the Church, but I feel weird, because I am so on the fringe of “the Church” and its beliefs.

I value honesty in my spiritual struggles, doubts, and beliefs (because I don’t struggle with all of my disbelief – some of it I am quite reconciled with), but I don’t want to trample the fresh faith of new believers with my cynicism and doubt. So, I speak, and I try to be honest, but sometimes I put on a doctrinal face that does not reflect my core. And I feel conflicted about that, but I keep on coming up with ideas when I am asked to cover a Sunday, because it is so easy for me to open my mouth.