Friday, November 28, 2008

Sexy Candidate Reprise: David Grégoire

David Grégoire, of Sexy Candidate 2008 fame, is taking another stab at his home riding -- this time in the upcoming provincial election.

After suffering a thrashing at the hands of Bloc-er Roger Gaudet in the federal election, David is presenting himself again in the same place (called Masson instead of Montcalm for provincial purposes). With an even sexier photo and hopefully more money to run his campaign so that he won't have to rely on scooting around town with campaign signs strapped to his back (although that WAS pretty cool), he's running in a riding which has not traditionally been keen to elect Liberals, or really anyone other than the PQ until last March. But maybe with Charest's focus on "L'économie d'abord", more Québécois will be scared into voting for a party who can protect their financial interests . . . the ones who can be bothered to vote, anyway. Basically, the Liberals are hoping for a re-do of the federal election -- I mean with the governing party maintaining the status quo, not the Liberals getting trounced!

Let's review David's "sexy" credentials:
  • Diverse skill set -- works as mathematician, plays the piano
  • Intelligent -- is member of Mensa Québec
  • Contributes to the economy and tourism industry -- owns a B&B
  • His accent is as sexy as he is innovative -- as evidenced by this Infoman clip
If you need any further references, look no further than Radio-Canada. In an attempt to cash in on the obvious success of the Sexy Candidates 2008 list, Infoman named David Grégoire Miss Candidat Fédérale 2008. Of course, that was October 16. Remember, folks, you heard about David Grégoire being sexy from me first.

Here's to wishing David Grégoire the best of luck on December 8, and of course, promising him a spot on the Sexy Politicians Hotlist if he pulls out a victory.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Trudeau, the B&B Comission, the failure of second-language education, and why this is important

Normally, I am a pretty big Pierre Trudeau cheerleader. Had I been born around the same time as my mother, I'd be one of the many screaming star-struck girls cheering like he was the Beatles. Had P.E.T. been doing his thing in the last federal election, I'd be wrapping myself in nothing but a Canadian flag and posting "I've got a Crush on Trudeau" videos on YouTube. Unfortunately, there was one point on which Trudeay really screwed things up -- and it's an issue rather close to my heart.

In the early sixties, The Man in Ottawa had noticed young Québécois getting all uppity. They figured that they had better do something if they hoped to put a stop to all this talk of secession, so the Pearson government created the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, or the B&B Commission. They spent six years cruising around Canada, collecting data and asking for the opinions of the public.
Great CBC Archives footage here -- source here.

Finally, André Laurendeau and David Dunton came out with some recommendations, including the creation of the Official Languages Act, the creation of bilingual districts "where numbers warrant", the going-bilingual of Ontario and New Brunswick (to join Quebec, which was at that time officially bilingual), and giving parents the choice to send their kids to school in a minority language, again "where numbers warrant".

The Trudeau government, which had showed up in the House the year before, looked at the B&B Commission's recommendations and thought to itself, "Awesome. We are all over this. This is going to be the thing that re-asserts our centralized power, not to mention shuts up those whiny Québécois nationalists, uh, builds national unity." The Official Languages Act was adopted that year, making Canada officially bilingual -- because apparently up until then, Canada had been blissfully ignoring reality. Hooray, Trudeau government! Twelve gold stars.

Unfortunately, the rest of the B&B Commission's recommendations didn't get quite the same treatment.

New Brunswick said "Good stuff," and made itself as officially bilingual as Canada, but Ontario went "Hmm, that looks expensive," and stopped returning Canada's phone calls. They did, however, plunk out a few French schools to keep people happy, as did many other provinces. This protected francophone populations outside of Quebec from assimilation, and everyone lived happily ever after. Oh, wait, no, that's not what happened at all!

Trudeau, with the best of intentions, decided that everyone should learn the "other" language (be it English or French) in school. Everyone in Canada became bilingual and could now make friends with each other. The hate stopped, and everyone sat in big circles with guitars singing bilingual songs of peace. Then Trudeau woke up, ate some breakfast, and turned on CBC. Obviously he didn't watch this clip, but it would have been really appropriate if he had. He would have noticed that second-language education in the primary grades may not have been working so well.

I expect that my experiences of second-language education is fairly typical for those who grew up in areas without official-language minority populations. In this case, it meant being taught French by anglophones who had once spent one to three years in France, or less often Quebec, when they were in their early twenties. After that, they spent the next twenty years speaking to twelve-year-old anglophones and occasionally watching French films, which has led to an entirely understandable breakdown in their proficiency, notably their accents. Their teaching materials are limited and often the cost of these materials is not completely covered by the school, leading to kids like me coming home asking for a cheque for fifteen dollars to pay for my French book while my mother grumbles and wonders where her tax money is going. French is rarely actually spoken in the classroom before grade 10, at least by anyone other than the teacher. Unsurprisingly, even the most studious French student is frequently confused and understands very little actual French. She can say "Je m'appelle Suzy. Comment t'appelles-tu?" off by heart, although she does not know what the words appeler or comment mean, and if someone asks, "C'est quoi, ton nom?" she will not have any idea what they are asking.

The fact that second-language education is made of fail is not the fault of the government, or the school board, or the teacher, or the student. The fact is simply that the conversations drilled into student's heads rarely occur as rehearsed in real life. Anglophones who once spent a few years in France are in short supply as it is, never mind people who are actually intimately familiar with French. And learning a second language is difficult.

Trudeau's dream was that every Canadian from coast to coast would be bilingual. This is like trying to make every Canadian a physicist. It's hopelessly unrealistic. A letter-carrier in Newfoundland, a farmer in B.C., or a chef in the Yukon simply doesn't need to speak French, will likely not have any opportunity to practice it on a daily basis, and, assuming he or she isn't a "languages person" will find it prohibitively difficult to learn. Now, if you live in, say, Montreal, learning a second language is pretty gosh darned easy! If you are a minority language group, it is even gosh darned easier!

"Where numbers warrant" is one of the key phrases when it comes to the B&B Commission, and it also represents a sad paradox. The only way to get people to be bilingual is to give them a chance at immersion. But realistically, this means minority language groups, and minority language groups are really good at getting assimilated, especially if they are francophone (thanks in large part to the nauseating overproduction of anglophone culture south of the boarder). So they only way to realistically make people bilingual is to put them in daily contact with the other language group, and the only way to do that is for the other language group (or the first one) to exist in such a position as they are likely to disappear within a few generations. Awesome.

This is not to say we should abolish compulsory second-language education in public schools, in the same way that we should not abolish math. We just need to reform our expectations, and by extension, our methods.

Trudeau's mistake was thinking that language barriers were the biggest obstacle to national unity. This isn't the case. For one thing, having every person in a country being perfectly bilingual renders one language superfluous. For every bilingual person, that's one or more people who don't need to be bilingual. But language barriers are not barriers to goodwill. The biggest problem with national unity is Otherness. Since the Plains of Abraham, this problem of subjectivity and objectivity has existed between English- and French-speaking populations in Canada. Today, it is becoming more of a problem that affects regions in Canada (i.e. the West, Central Canada, and the Maritimes), and sometimes allophone immigrant populations versus anglophone or francophone Canadians (Bouchard-Taylor Commission, anyone?).

The problem of the Other exists primarily when there is little familiarity of what is being "otherized". Hence, Canadians talk about the "pea soup-eaters" or the "maudits anglais". The Official Languages Act was moving in the right direction; seeing French on your ketchup or breakfast cereal says "Like it or not, the pea-soup eaters are your fellow Canadians," and also "Regardez, les maudits anglais ne fourrent toujours le chien." But it's a big step from reading the cereal box in the morning because your neighbour stole your newspaper again and not talking about how ignorant and selfish the damned (anglos/Quebeckers) are. If you hated second-language education in school, this probably did not help things.

Instead of focusing on producing language proficiency in schools, we need to focus on producing cultural proficiency. Being able to swear in another language is not good enough. Exposure to the other language's literature (probably translated), music, cinema (subtitles!), food, and geography would not only make second-language education a lot more fun, but it would do what mere dialogue memorization could not hope to: it would instill a sense of familiarity, hopefully weakening the traditional "us versus them" sentiments that have too often characterized the "two solitudes" and put everyone more in the "us" category. Of course, "Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought," says Simone de Beauvoir, quite truthfully. But we must be careful who we make the Other. It is interesting that from a "Canadian" perspective, this distinction does not exist. Unilingual Canadians can have a bilingual identity -- just ask Joe Canadian (ten bucks says his French is terrible).

Why is this important? Because Canadian unity is important. It is important to our identity, and it is important to our ability to function. It is as important today as it was at Confederation. Canada, for all the federalism we practice, cannot ultimately be governed by a decentralized government. We share the same values, and we need one another for social, cultural, and economic reasons. I actually have to go write an essay about that right now, so I'm going to let Stéphane Dion finish explaining for me:
If we have achieved all this -- and many other things as well -- it is quite simply because we are together. It would not be possible for ten inward-looking republics north of the United States to offer their citizens the same quality of life and the same future as the great, generous federation that brings us together. Canada is a success because we have worked to draw the best from each culture, each population, each of our provinces and territories. Because we have learned, perhaps better than any other people, that equality and unity are not synonymous with uniformity. Because we know that respect for diversity is what enables human beings to join forces to achieve what is the most true and the most universal.
- Recognizing Quebec: An Expression of Canadian Values, September 10 1997.

Two years after the latest referendum on Quebec's secession. Are there still two solitudes? It depends on who you ask.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Update on Sexy Politicians

Just a quick note that the Sexy Politicians Hotlist has been updated, not only to reflect job changes but with added Sexy Politicians Yulia Tymoshenko, Nicolas Dufour, and Josée Beaudin. Unfortunately, it is really hard to find anything interesting to say about someone who has only just been elected (not to mention their birthday and romantic status). There is a decent amount of buzz around Baby of the House Nicolas Dufour, what with him barely being old enough to have his first baccalaureate and all, but if anyone knows anything about Josée Beaudin other than the pitiful point-form notes on her Bloc profile, please let me know!

Translation of the Sexy Politicians list to come in the near (entirely undefined) future.

I apologize for the lull in blogging lately. National Novel Writing Month and term paper season are to blame, so you can expect full blogging once more in December. In the meantime, if anyone would like to help me research hermeneutics, 18th-century stairists, or socioeconomic forces influencing the interfaces between French and English Canada, consider this an open invitation.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Drop fees, raise standards

If you've been on a college campus recently, you will surely notice the plentiful Drop Fees campaign material. The CSF's relentless campaign to get tuition fees in Ontario lowered has come back reliably every year, inspiring some students to activism, and irking others (the general argument being that lower tuition fees mean a devalued degree).

Myself, I have felt somewhat ambiguous about this. It's true that tuition fees in Ontario, when compared with the rest of Canada, are pretty high (although still next to nothing when compared to, say, the US). Right now, I am paying just under $5 000 per year in tuition fees for my BA; if I was a resident of Quebec and studying at U Montreal or U Laval, I'd be paying just under $2 000 for the same thing. Yes, this means higher taxes for the citizens of Quebec, but if I was a baby boomer, one who anticipated retiring in the next decade or so and expecting to need doctors, nurses, pharmacists, accountants, law enforcement professionals, and above all, CPP contributors, well, I would understand the need to fork over part of my paycheque for education.

Yesterday, November 5, my school like many others joined in the rallies, marching from the atrium of the university centre to downtown Ottawa. Some students came up with an innovative way of advertising the march: sidewalk chalk. Chalked messages covered a number of surfaces around campus, like the one I saw in the quad this morning:

If you're worried about lower tuition fees devaluing your degree, I propose a solution. Let's campaign for lower tuition fees in Ontario -- and higher admissions averages.

(Either that, or better education in our high schools. After the "literacy test", the obsession with the five-paragraph essay, and teachers who act more like baby sitters than instructors, it is a wonder than anyone graduates with any academic literacy at all.)

American Election results

Dear Americans,

Thank you for not fucking up this election, and electing another Republican. We have yet to see if Obama can make up for Bush as far as we are concerned, but our hopes are pretty high at this point.

Sincerely, The Rest of The World.

I almost wish that Election Night in America had been a little closer, just so that we could all have enjoyed some seat-of-our pants type excitement. But of course, Obama winning by a large margin (even if he only had 52% of the popular vote) is infinitely preferable to McCain winning. After all, the only good McCain is a French fry! (Shut up, that is probably the last time I’ll get to say that.) When they called Virginia for Obama, and Will pointed out that one of the first states to succeed from the Union had just elected a black man for president, I realized that I was watching history in the making. appearing as a holographic guest on CNN just cemented that fact.

Canadians, if you guys are anything like me, you may be feeling mild chagrin mixed in with your relief. The vast majority of Canadian PMs have been (often old) white men. In Canada, if race is a factor in an election, it means that it is the late nineteenth century and an old white anglophone man is running against an old white francophone man. Okay, okay, it is true that Canada’s head of state is a black woman, and she succeeded an Asian woman. But there is a difference between being appointed and being elected (and the GG’s power is more or less entirely symbolic). How do we, Canada, known for being crazy left-wing socialists compared to most of the world, get away with electing old white guys all the time? England, India, even Pakistan is outstripping us! Even France has Ségolène Royal. The closest we have is E-May, and she barely even made it into the leaders’ debate. Even Ruby Dhalla doing a practice run in the Liberal leadership race would be a step forward. Are we racist?

The one thing that kept me on my high left-wing horse this election actually made me feel just a little worse about humanity. Half the voters in California voted in favour of Proposition 8, which, in a nutshell, flips the bird at gay marriage. You just know that Dan Savage is devoting an angry, sarcastic column to this. Socially liberal Canadians, please join me in symbolically facing south-west (or south), and chanting, “Shaaaaaame.”

Even if the overall results of this election were awesome, there are a few drawbacks we have to consider. One, Hustler’s Who’s Nailin’ Paylin? just won’t be the same (even if I’ve seen the non-sex YouTube spots, I feel like I have to see the whole thing, even if I fast-forward through the usual formulaic sex scenes). I am not sure whether copies of this film will appreciate in value, or whether they’ll be in the porn shop bargain bin come January. Two, now we all have to junk our clever I Hate Bush merchandise. That stuff won’t be cool again for another twenty-five years, at which point it will be appropriated by hipsters trying to look cool and ironic by making references to events that occurred before they were born. History repeats itself.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Night in America

The News is already predicting/outright saying that Pennsylvania has gone to Obama. If this is true, the fight is more or less over; but you can still play the CNN Election Night Drinking Game!
  • Drink every time CNN talks about having "the best political team on television"
  • Drink every time a pundit talks about Palin being a liability
  • Chug when Obama wins a state that Bush won in 'o4
  • Drink when a Republican pundit says the race is still close
  • Drink when Obama being black is mentioned
  • Chug when a Republican says "maverick"
  • Finish your drink if McCain doesn't carry Arizona
  • Drink every time the Bradley Effect is mentioned
(Thanks to Will.)

More on the election post-election.

Monday, November 3, 2008

November Reading

For November's novel, I've picked a Canadian author: Timothy Findley. If you ask someone what their favourite Findley novel is, assuming they have read Findley, they will probably say Not Wanted on the Voyage or even The Telling of Lies, but I keeping with monthly themes (and, it seems, an unintended theme of sex), I've picked:

The Wars (by Timothy Findley).
Cliché, I know, but hey, I could have picked Private Peaceful (I don't care if it is meant for the twelve-plus crowd, it's one of my all-time favourites).
The Wars, despite its name, is about much more than war. Although the first world war is the dominant event and element, and it contains much of the same themes as war literature -- the senselessness and futility of war, the disconnect between those giving orders and those fighting, homoerotic undertones -- historiography and gender roles are the dominant themes.

Typically, when one talks about "gender roles" in literature, especially literature written before the mid-twentieth century, it is from a feminist perspective. The Wars, however, was written in 1977, well after the second wave of feminism. And hey, if women can question their traditional role in Western society, can't men? The Wars looks at gender roles from what is sometimes called a masculinist perspective, which is more the companion of feminism than its opposite.

What is masculinity? Is it rigidly defined, or is the word polysemous? With words like "metrosexual" in the modern lexicon, we have fuzzier definitions of gender roles, but in 1917, things were pretty clear. Findley subverts traditional gender roles in this novel (consider the many meanings of the line from which the novel takes its name, "And this was what they called the wars."). He presents "successful" and "unsuccessful" masculinities. Successful ones are most often presented in terms of being a caretaker, and not necessarily in the financial sense. Robert Ross, the main character, is his sister's caretaker, and later, a caretaker of various animals. His father is at his best as a caretaker, rocking his wife or reading to his children. Most of the military officers, in their roles as caretakers of a sort, fail in their occupations. Unsuccessful masculinities are presented as vain attempts to fit the traditional mold. Robert, in his attempts to be "manly", finds only frustration at every turn. Even his role model of manliness is caught having kinky gay sex before Robert even makes it across the Atlantic. The heterosexual relationships Robert has are at best awkward and at worst violent.

Anyone who has studied war literature, especially war poetry, knows that homoerotic undertones are fairly common. In The Wars, even homoeroticism is complicated (for poor Robert, even masturbation is weird and creepy). Homosexuality expressed physically is depicted as horrifying, while mere homosexual feelings are confusing -- which of course is not surprising, considering this is 1917. The only person who seems to understand man-on-man love is little Juliet d'Orsey.

As much as the traditional gender roles of men are frustrated in The Wars, women get a similar treatment. Mrs. Ross, while her husband plays caretaker, responds with a helpless kind of anger to most of the events in the novel. Barbara d'Orsey acts like a playboy, moving from one good-looking man to the next with little regard for the emotional damage she causes. She uses men for sex as long as it is convenient for her; once a soldier loses his good looks and strong arms to the battle, she moves on. She is presented not so much as an "evil" character as a foil; she genuinely does not seem to understand what she's doing. Her little sister Juliet, on the other hand, acts like a fly on the wall and can observe sexual relationships objectively, being too young to have one herself.

As for the historiography of The Wars. The Wars presents history as a series of puzzle pieces to be put together, or rather as a series of disjointed fragments which overlap and leave gaps. The narrator is an unnamed individual who is trying to piece together the story of Robert Ross for reasons we are not told. Essentially, The Wars is saying that history is unknowable in its true and unadulterated form. Narratives inevitably only present one perspective, sometimes a thoroughly incomplete ones. This has plenty of implications for both war and gender roles.

If you like war literature and/or homoerotic themes but don't have time to read a whole book, check out some war poetry. Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfrid Owen is a personal favourite, but you can't go wrong with any Owen, Sassoon, or Hardy. Alternatively, if you like combinations of hilariousness and anti-war sentiments, get a good modern translation of Aristophanes's Lysistrata.