Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Alarm bells and what sets them off

There is another element in the distinction between Quebec and the rest of Canada and that is the general public approach to the involvement of government in our daily lives. There is a lot more of it here and it seems generally accepted. I'm not the best person to make this kind of analysis, because I rally against all bureaucracy, be it government, corporate or personal. Also, I lived half my life in the States where there is a much greater tendency to complain as a citizen and consumer.

Nevertheless, it seems that in Quebec the government asks a lot more of its citizens. And there are laws ensuring that you do what is asked. These laws seem, in principle, to be in direct violation of the individual freedoms I hold precious as a member of a free society. When I question the laws, the people act like I'm a little crazy.

Here is an example. I recently got a notice to renew my health card. Everyone in Quebec has to have a health card. It's probably more important as an identifier of who you are than your driver's license. The requirements for proving your residency are much harder for the health card than the driver's license, for instance.

With the notice was a flyer explaining the Quebec prescription drug plan. Everyone in Quebec must be covered by a prescription drug plan. If your employer doesn't provide you with one, you must indicate this and pay it in your taxes. If you are below a certain income level, you don't have to pay the taxes. Now personally, I think this is a good thing and this isn't the violation of freedom I am going to talk about.

When I called to renew my health card, I also said that I had a prescription drug plan provided by my employer. She started asking me all these questions. Exactly when did I get it? Why do you want to know? I asked. Am I going to be reimbursed for the money I unnecessarily paid in the last two years? She seemed miffed that I would ask such a question. Her answer was that it was the law. Then she started asking me about my conjointe's medical plan. I told her that I am not privy to that information. She said that it was also the law that I reveal how long my conjointe has had a prescription plan. When I kept pushing back on her with more questions, she did say that all of this info was held in the strictest confidence and that other branches of the government did not have access to it.

These kinds of questions struck me as being invasive of my privacy. I know they aren't a big deal and I ended up giving them the data they wanted. It's probably just to get their databases up to date, a motivation with which I am familiar and sympathetic.

It's the tone of the discourse that sets my alarm bells off. The way she just assumed that I would know to give her this info and the way any questions about it are brushed off with "it's the law." This sets my anglophone alarm bells ringing and I think it's the same for the old school anglophone minority here in Quebec. They see the kind of laws that came out of Bill 101, laws that restrict how you can express yourself, laws that go across private property (albeit commercial property) and they get alarmed.

And why do we get alarmed? I think you can take this all the way back to the Protestant/Catholic divide. The British are the champions of the kind of mercantilist liberty, whereas the French, though strong believers in liberty as well, have always been more comfortable with a healthy dose of government intervention. We North American anglophones moved even farther away from the British and the idea of things like nationwide school exams would be unthinkable here.

It's also important to remember that a strong portion of the anglophone minority in Quebec are Jewish. They are a people who will never forget where a few slightly invasive laws can lead.

So once again, trying to bridge the divide, I think it's important for francophones to understand some of the culture behind the aggressive reactions to the Quebec government's attempts to shore up the french culture and language here. It's not just that it's french and different and not ours. It's also the way it is applied. Personally, I am very supportive of the work that has been done in the last 40 years to keep the culture of Quebec strong, but when I hear some of Pauline Marois measures, such as forcing immigrants to sign a paper declaring they will follow the values here, I react strongly. My reaction is one of anger, which comes from fear (which leads to hate, and we all know where that leads). Yes, teach the language and the culture. Spend tons of state money on encouraging immigrants to embrace all that Quebec has to offer and to help it proliferate. But never let it not be a choice for me.

On the other hand, I think us anglophones must understand that there is also a lot of fear in the francophone community. The commercial power of english is so pervasive and subtle. Things in the majority always are. More and more in downtown Montreal one is approached by store employees in english. That sets off alarm bells in many francophones and it is natural for them to look to laws to prevent such a phenomenon from spreading. It seems like the only solution in the short term. As an anglophone here, though locally we are in the minority, we are, strangely, a minority, inside another minority, surrounded by our majority. You shouldn't forget that.

In general, we should all drop our reactive, defensive stances and work positively to encourage the adoption of french among immigrants and the acceptance of all minority groups here in Quebec.

Monday, November 17, 2008


5eme saison pictureOne of the guys was listening to Harmonium on Friday in the office. I had heard about them (they are mentioned in Michel Rabagliati's Paul Has a Summer Job) but never actually listened to them. He lent me the CD. It was the second of their entire three-album oeuvre (plus a fourth live album) called Si on avait besoin d'une cinquième saison ("If we needed a fifth season") and was released in 1975.

I don't fully comprehend the significance of Harmonium in Quebec culture, but it is huge. They were the first band in Quebec to have songs that were longer than 3 minutes and really the only prog rock band to come out of the province. They had a huge following and grew steadily more popular, culminating their career with a world wide tour backing up SuperTramp. They were also closely aligned with the political movements of the René Lévesque era and la Revolution tranquille. I didn't find this confirmed anywhere, but the guy who lent me the CD told me that they were offered big bucks to sing in english and refused.

It's not just that these guys were big in Quebec in the '70s. They are still big! I think most Quebec kids go through a Harmonium phase. The webmaster in our office, who is in her early '20s and is always singing with her headphones on, told me which was her favourite album and sang tunes from some of the songs. She said she listened to it all the time when she was younger. I think Harmonium may be a bit akin to Jim Hendrix or the Doors or other '60s bands that young people keep rediscovering. The difference is that here in Quebec, most of the kids probably discover this stuff at home (although come to think of it, that's where I first heard Reggae music).

So I listened to the album and I apologize to my Quebec friends, but I didn't much enjoy it. I did appreciate it, and I especially appreciated the psychedelic album inside cover art. This album was like really pleasant, layered and professionaly played folk rock. If you are a fan of The Grateful Dead and Fish (or is it Phish?) then you probably will like this album. Personally, I've never understood the connection between LSD and folk music. The first time I heard the Dead, I was contemptuously disappointed. It sounded like bad country to me and I could not understand how so many of my college friends found their music to be psychedelic and mind-blowing. I think the same disconnect is happening here for me with Harmonium.

The difference, though, is that Quebec is a very musical culture. Everybody here sings and they love lyrics and melody and the intertwining of those things. So music that sounds poppy and banal to me can still be fun if you know all the lyrics and can sing it. It's even more powerful if those lyrics and the singing of the song are wrapped up in your childhood and cultural identity.

The third Harmonium album, L'Heptade is about the seven stages of a human life and is supposed to be a lot heavier and darker. I'll give it a whirl and let you know my feelings.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Some good gaffes

I'm no stranger to verbal and social gaffes in english. They are hazards of the opinionated, loudmouth extrovert trade. But they tend to not be due to grammatical or vocabulary errors. In french, however, I'm probably averaging 1.5 errors per sentence. Most are just simple mistakes, probably making the listener unconsciously wince at worst (sometimes bad enough to earn a much-appreciated correction). But every now and then I make a real howler. Here is a good one:

My office is on the third floor and we have a buzzer and intercom phone for people on the front door below to contact us. It's some left over attempt at doing things Toronto style long since abandoned since the front door is never locked. We use it mainly to yell stuff at people smoking on the front porch. However, the handle on the front door sticks and the physically and mentally weak who lack initiative often stand out at the front door and buzz the buzzer. This is annoying to me as anyone with any chi would just push the freaking button on the handle down harder. So one day the buzzer goes off. I pick up the phone (which is in the hallway; where half the organization happened to be having impromptu hallway discussions at the time) and say in a really loud voice:

"La parte est ouverte! Il faut baiser la poignée!"

Now if you know french, you'll be laughing already. In french two s's sounds like the letter s in english. One sounds like the letter z. "Baisser" with an s sound means to lower. "Baiser" with a z sound means to make love to.

Enough said.

The hallway exploded in laughter. It took a long time to die down and this incident is still brought up from time to time.

For the record, I really should have said something like "il faut pousser la poignée". Baisser is like lowering as in volume or from high to low. Everything is so specific in french.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The disappearing cats of the Plateau

There is a story going around the Plateau and Mile End area that somebody is stealing people's cats. It started with signs (in french and english) posted on telephone poles around town saying that cats have been disappearing and a mysterious van has been spotted prowling around the alleys late at night. Last week, the Journal de Montreal had an article on it, saying that the police had opened up a case. There were more details. Someone had spotted a white van with two white males in their 20s and that they operate between midnight and 5 in the morning. There was no actual substantiation of any of this. Recently, a new sign went up, going into the same amount of detail as the article.

Now I own two cats, and I let them out and if you'll let me indulge briefly in some revenge porn, I can tell you that if this thing is actually happening, I would make a significant effort to catch the perpetrators. And if I caught them, I would not waste time with our legal system (which would probably be useless in this case, concerning our pathetically weak animal cruelty laws, especially here in Québec).

But let's leave aside such pleasant fantasies for the time being. I am very skeptical of these reports for several reasons. The whole thing reeks of an urban myth. My main contention is what is the motivation for someone to steal cats? The theory put forth in the Journal article (a tabloid and not too well respected here for its journalistic intregity) is that the perpetrators are drug addicts who are selling the cats to laboratories.

I am quite sure there are laboratories that experiment on cats. But are they in the market for stray cats brought in from a couple of junkies? Perhaps there is some evil middleman who is gathering them throughout the region, but even then, what kind of a control group is that? There are mail order companies that supply animals in bulk to laboratories (kittens included, think about that for a moment; thanks cosmetics industry!). Even if there were labs accepting stray cats, can they be paying enough that it would be worth it for these guys to drive all over the place? How many cats would they have to sell to fill a tank of gas, for instance? And as my lovely fiancée pointed out, wouldn't it be much more productive to just breed cats? You'd probably get a lot more, a lot quicker and a lot less riskier than trying to catch cats in the back alleys of Montreal (though if these are junkies, basic logic doesn't necessarily apply here).

The only other theory we have come up with is Satan worshippers. It's possible that with the resurgence in '80s style, Satanism is now trendy. Mile End is the horrific epicenter of this cultural wave and it is possible some charismatic minion of evil is holding sway over a harder core group of skinny, scarf-wearing hipsters. I can see those idiots getting sucked into something like this because of some intense conversation they had with a dude at a Drawn & Quarterly vernissage. But they are so physically frail (skinny wrists and drooping shoulders, like ironic moustaches, seem to be what is considered attractive masculine features among this set) that I can't see them actually doing the work. Though now that I think about it, driving around the Mile End alleys trying to catch cats might be just within their reach.

I will say that, though there are always a lot of missing cat signs around, they seem to really be on the rise these last couple months. If anyone does have some solid information, I'd love to hear about it. I am serious that if this is really going on, I will act to put a stop to it. Webcams can be set up in the alleys, all the labs that experiment on cats could be investigated and the local junkey population (which starts to disappear as the weather gets cold) interrogated. There are steps to take but they should be based on reality and not alarmist paranoia.