Thursday, June 3, 2010

I Say Potato, You Say Pomme de Terre

Interesting brief on the NY Times Web site about procedural wrangling in the Quebec provincial legislature over restrictions on English-language instruction in Quebec schools. The major parties agree on limiting access, but the separatist Parti Québécois wants more restrictions.

Canada is intriguing because it is a country with strong (and conflicting) perceptions of nationality based upon factors like language and heritage... but it is also a quintessential New World state, which is to say that absolutely none of the people presently in charge have aboriginal origins in the first place. (Well, except in Nunavut, but that's a comparatively minor example.)

While 21st century Canada is a multiethnic state, it also represents a story of two heritages to a much larger degree than has ever been the case in the United States. Bouncing between British and French dominion, and eventually developing a unique, hybrid and not altogether successful dual heritage, Canada is a prime example of what you get when you try to start imposing a specific laundry list of heritage-based characteristics upon a contested, post-colonial landscape.

The United States has not been immune to similar attempts. From colonial times well through the nineteenth century (and among some benighted people, into the twentieth), quotations about an Anglo empire coursing its way West abound. To our likely good fortune, however, despite attempts to impose a universal heritage, from the start the lands that would become the United States have been too diversely populated to make this truly stick. As a result, we do not have an official language. Neither do we have an official religion. And we definitely cannot refer to the United States as English, or French, or anything else specific in its heritage.

We would do well to remember this as we face the complicated questions of the present regarding immigration, multiculturalism, and the other continuing growing pains that characterize our national dialogue. These are the growing pains that have plagued us since the start--and, in the end, have given us some of our very greatest gifts. Many along the way would have preferred otherwise. The sad stories of nativist immigration restriction and racism are ample proof that darker tendencies have sometimes gained ascendancy. However: in the end, we are a nation that has come to terms with a multinational heritage.

The thing about a multinational heritage in a New World country, characterized from the beginning by immigration, is that the nature of this multinationalism will necessarily change and develop over time. It is a legacy worth remembering, and building upon, as we move forward into the future.

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