Why do academics inflict their particular, convenient analogies on the rest of us? Do they assume that ordinary people have no knowledge of history, that “plain folks” cannot draw proper comparisons? Do experts take it for granted that, just because they say so, “so it is”? Bafflegab nonsense is never acceptable. Even less so now, as Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga talks about important and controversial language-law legislation—if we recall what one Canadian government official had to say about Latvian “separatism” to begin with.
Years ago (in correspondence published in the Montreal Latvian Society newsletter Ziņotājs and elsewhere) I asked Canadian “unity” Minister Stéphane Dion to stop comparing a noisy minority trying to break the province of Québec away from Canadian confederation to national Baltic “separatists” (his label), who had “seceded” (his description) from the Soviet Union. The two cases are not even close, by any stretch of the imagination. Emotion-laden terminology fails to manufacture valid connections between them.
Québec, I pointed out, has never been an independent country. As a territory (then the British colony of “Lower Canada”), it willlingly joined the Confederation more than a century ago. Québec separatists were (and still are) trying create what never was. Latvia, in stark contrast, had been a sovereign republic, a member of the League of Nations. Latvians threw off Russian occupation to regain the natural independence they enjoyed before “the West” abandoned Eastern Europe to communism at the end of the Second World War.
Dion, a former university professor, was formulating clear “rules of separation” (for provinces) here—since Québec has a nasty habit of making up its own as it goes along. He drew parallels between Canadian legislation and “orderly procedures” Mikhail Gorbachev had set up to keep the Soviet Union cobbled together. Irrelevant. Latvians had no obligation to play by Moscow rules, designed to maintain a union imposed by force and terror. They simply took back what had already been theirs, what they had fought for and established, what had been stolen from them. They could not, logically, have “seceded” from an aberration they had never joined of their own free will. For an oppressed, occupied nation—which Québec can never claim to be—this was more than a procedural exercise.
I appealed to Dion to appreciate this difference between “may we?” legislation aimed at clarifying provincial options in a democratic confederation and a national imperative that rejects illegitimate invaders. Despite some singing and dancing in his reply, I believe that he recognized the point.
Latvia has regained independence. Dion no longer is a cabinet minister. But we never learn from history, even the history of arguments, so we are condemned to repeat the dance, this time in a minor but still-painful key.
During a sympathetic Feb. 23 Canadian Broadcasting Corp. news interview with Joe Schlesinger, Vīķe-Freiberga hailed “the success” of Québec’s Bill 101 in “reestablishing French in the public domain” as a precedent for Latvian language-law legislation. No serious qualifiers surfaced during a longer version of the piece braodcast March 6 on CBC Newsworld. Strange. Why this—how may we call it?—attachment to academic constructs that have no substantial foundation?
Surely Madame President knows that Canadian and Latvian (historical, political, ethnic) circumstances are not similar, that language legislation in Canada is a controversial exception, not a precedent to emulate. Her estimate of “success: is debatable—by Latvian-Canadians who lean toward local Anglophone communities, and by non-francophones within Québec (who see themselves as victims of Bill 101). The “public domain” she envisages is hardly national: it does not extend past New Brunswick (Canada’s only officially bilingual province), Québec (which is stridently unilingual French) and Ontario (mainly within the federal government in Ottawa). Most Canadian citizens do not accept any logical or moral justification for Bill 101. They see it as a constant irritant that pits one citizen against another.
Why, then, even mention it in connection with our own Latvian problems? Such offhand analogies compromise understanding of and damage good will toward our cause. This one is likely to make everyday diplomacy more difficult as well.
Start with the obvious difference, again : Latvia is a country, Québec a province of Canada. What a country does (for all citizens) and what a province does (for some) cannot have the same importance, or be measured with the same yardstick. National and regional “success” are two very different propositions.
Like any sovereign country, Latvia has the right to determine what its official language should be. (There is only one, and it is Latvian.) Latvia does not need to obtain approval from Moscow, or the European Union, in order to pass language laws, reconfigure its educational system, to “present a Latvian face” to visitors, and so on. For better or worse, the Latvian Parliament (Saiema) makes the rules, no one else. No elected regional assembly—in Vidzeme, Kurzeme, Zemgale, or Latgale—is empowered to issue challenges, or enact local exemptions. (We can discuss the city government of Rīga as a sad and special case, but that is another story.) In other words, there is no need to be defensive about what Latvia does, or explain it in analogies others are bound to misunderstand.
Canada is a confederation of provinces, Québec among them. The two official languages of Canada, equally enshrined in the Constitution, are English and French. (Neither one, therefore, cries out for “reestablishing.”) But equal, or “the same,” is not enough in this age of special entitlements. Any Canadian province may invoke an escape-hatch “notwithstanding” clause. It allows provincial legislatures to opt out of constitutional arrangements (for example on tax collection, health care or language) whenever they do not agree with federal policies, or feel that they must act uniquely for political reasons. The price of official unity in Canada, strangely enough, is this mechanism for potential disunity and discord. But there is no such mechanism in the Latvian Constitution, as the president knows. Latvia’s language law is not subject to any kind of “not in our back yard” disregard. It simply is. It applies everywhere. Respect it, or move on.
You will find no nation called Québec in world maps, or at the United Nations. Nevertheless, using the legislative loophole mentioned, Bill 101 declares French to be the “national” language of Québec, and gives it prominence (in signage, hiring practices, language of work, and so on)—evading Canadian constitutional guarantees. The rest of Canada, for practical purposes, is another country. Appreciate these details: traffic tickets are issued in French only; Anglophones must make special requests if they wish to “enjoy” court proceedings in English; there are no English road signs; Web sites must be mainly in French; software can’t be sold unless there is a French version; Canadians settling in Québec must send children to French schools; the civil service does not hire Anglophones; July 1, Canada Day, has been designated “moving day” by the provincial government, and so on. All this within a country where English is an official language. Worse, the federal government takes no notice. (In fact, it pushes acceptance of French, also known as “bilingualism,” in the rest of Canada.) The net result is that Anglo (and immigrant) Canadians in Québec are second-class citizens. This is hardly a precedent to applaud.
It is nifty, comfortable and assuring, however, if you are a unilingual francophone and wish to lead a sheltered “collective” life within provincial borders. Many do just that; for some this represents “success.” But consider the opposite dimension: 400,000 Anglophones have left Québec since Bill 101 became law. Hemmed in by nagging, petty regulations that promote the primacy of French at the expense of English, harassed by provincial language police (fondly known as “tongue troopers”), many who were not “pure wool” Québecois decided to pull up roots and start again elsewhere. These were not radicals, colonists or economic migrants, but ordinary Canadians who had lived and worked in Québec for generations. They had had enough. The steady decline of Montreal as an “international” city—once host to a World’s Fair and the Olympic Games, should not come as a shock. “Others” are not welcome there. The less they speak up, the better. The faster they absent themselves from provincial decision-making, the more comfortable local ethnically-cleansed majorities will be. Bill 101 does not “promote” French per se; it suppresses English (and all other languages) so that French can appear to be more prominent. Bill 101 flies in the face of equality as prescribed by national consensus. It is an aberration in a political culture that has otherwise been remarkably even-handed.
Latvia’s language law seeks to redress the ravages of brutal Soviet colonization (which imposed Russian as the sole “all-union” language in occupied countries as a key conveyor of rule “from the center”). That era is dead and gone (but not forgotten). It is now (again) our independent, fundamental right to underline and enforce the primacy of one natural national language, our own, to ensure its survival, to clearly make it the language of government, education and business, to insist on its use within the civil service and the armed forces—as similar legislation does in many western countries. Nothing is exceptional about this. Our law recognizes the right of minority groups to organize private schools, publish in their own language, and so on. But it refuses to consider, in principle, the creation of any acknowledged duality. More generously: it allows 40 percent of subjects to be taught in public schools in Russian. How “tolerant” must a nation liberating itself from lingering colonial influences be? How often should our language law be softened to calm those who refuse to accept basic principles, as Madame President has done twice by sending clauses back to the Saiema for “clarification”? (In this she has not quite been the Margaret “Iron Lady” Thatcher clone Schlesinger portrayed in his interview.)
Many of us cannot understand why the language of remaining colonists and their offspring should receive any public recognition, tax-paid support, or safe niche through a conciliatory back door. It seems like “peace-in-our-time” waffling to make these people more comfortable than they should be, or put off a harsher choice: conform, assimilate, or leave. Enough catering to privileges migrants cannot claim in other countries. These pretensions are even less welcome now, when “minority” children, for example, should be able to speak the language of the country (not province) into which they were born, where they reside by choice and, hopefully, aspire to become loyal citizens. If that is not their goal, they are free to move on. If parents want to use them as cannon fodder in a language war and thereby deprive them of a better future, that is their responsibility and burden, not ours. They will have no one to blame but themselves when willful ignorance of history comes home to roost—as in not qualifying for Latvian citizenship, say, which will be essential for taking out EU papers within a few months. Let us have no compromises on that score. Fervent nationalists though they may be, Quebeckers still need a Canadian passport. There is no escape from asking for one. Russian nationalists in Latvia may fall back on their “motherland” passport and enjoy whatever benefits it can provide. I can’t wait for a solid NATO and EU “control line” along the Russian border. Then, as they say, “let’s talk.” For real.
Latvia’s situation is not Canada’s. Moscow applied Russification to Latvia for 50 years. There is no comparable history of “colonization” here (apart from “creative community” fantasies). Latvia must restore the primacy of its one language. Canada has enshrined language duality. The Canadian Constitution says both English and French are good. Choose freely. Speaking and being able to work in both is an advantage. (Unless provincial politicians cater to paranoia, as they have with Bill 101.) But unhappy Russians in Latvia strive for a distinct identity. They are the “separatists” now. Their “where did it all go?” should be dismissed, because “it” will not return. A sense of proportion would be useful in making comparisons.
I am repeating myself, I know. Call it piling on, if you like. But we have to nail down differences in the interests of avoiding more public relations gaffes.
Bill 101 attempts to insulate a pampered minority (located in one province) from making choices, despite having its language safeguarded in a national constitution. Latvia’s language law reasserts (ever so gently) the natural rights of a threatened national majority—a mere 1.5 million still-unique people adrift in the “European sea,” encumbered by half-million sullen Russian-speaking non-citizens in their midst. Bill 101 protects a strong linguistic group (7 million out of 30-odd million Canadians) concentrated in one province—which faces no threat whatsoever—by discriminating against English, the national (and the continental) majority language. Latvia’s language law defends the only language this nation has. For Québec, France remains a linguistic homeland and sentimental umbilical. Russians in Latvia have their aggressive, pushy motherland next door. Latvians have no other connection, nowhere to go. They stand alone. Madame President knows all this, too.
Unlike the neo-colonial pretensions of Russians in Latvia, Canada’s duality is already a functioning living thing: the Canadian civil service employs francophones out of proportion to their national numbers, with senior positions designated bilingual; the proceedings of Parliament are conducted and printed daily in both official languages; there are, per capita, far more French immersion school programs in the rest of Canada than English-immersion programs in Québec; Ottawa does business in both languages, while Québec does not; Canada treats both “heritage communities” with equal respect, for example participating in Commonwealth and Francophonie activities; Quebeckers have served as prime ministers of Canada more often than politicians from any other group, and have safeguarded the interests of their constituency with great care; the Canadian Supreme Court maintains a near-50 percent complement of Québec judges. On and on. The Canadian public domain is a far different place than Québec’s—or Latvia’s. Some historians say that Quebeckers have enjoyed “success” in it far out of scale to what they have contributed to national unity. Russians in Latvia, meanwhile, whine and moan about lost privileges, and insist on contributing nothing but complaints and accusations. Canada is a working federation—yes, with its share of problems and disagreements. Latvia must shake off Russian influence in order to emerge, again, as a distinctive nation.
Does Madame President still want to suggest some kind of vague equivalency? Through a fairly meek language law, some concept of parallel “success”? I would counsel her to reconsider and tread with great care. All of Latvia is our “public domain”—no exceptions, exemptions, special rules. Unlike Canada, we cannot tolerate any double standard. Our survival, as a nation, is at stake. Québec’s, as a province, is not.
More than 200 year ago the king of France abandoned Québec (“some acres of snow,” he said) after losing a colonial war to England. (He did receive Martinique as compensation.) The following English administration, over time, did not impose assimilation, but allowed the (Catholic) religion, civil (Napoleonic) code and language (French) of conquered colonists to continue and flourish. If we cut to the chase, Québec has emerged—within Canadian confederation—far more vital, influential and secure than this king could ever have imagined. I invite comparisons of this history to constantly-occupied Latvia’s as Russian, German, Swedish, then again Russian, German and Russian forces imposed their “order” and their language on a small, beleaguered band of Latvians who stood in their place for more centuries than any North American colony. To late-coming outsiders, we were exploitable territory and workers held in servitude. To us, they were foreign invaders who applied force as they pleased. We can cry “occupation!” more times than you can count, but never-occupied Québec may not. We must deal with the results of crushing policies strangers have imposed on us just to maintain our existence, but Québec cannot envisage anything similar in its rush to self-promotion. And so we should disdain any claim of similarity. Our national self-respect demands pride and clarity. I say disdain not because we can’t use all the help and understanding we can muster, but because we should not ask for any of it under false colours.
It is true that Québec is not a province like the others. It is‘distinctive. I, too, admire its relentless resilience. But what it does to maintain selective distinctiveness, next to what Latvia must do to reestablish its own as a living, breathing whole, is a comparison between the privileged and the abandoned. We should have no romantic illusions about that. “Tolerance” in Québec, compared to what some push as “tolerance” in Latvia, are two very different beasts. Latvians have no moral obligation to tolerate oppressors, their heirs and sympathizers. The sooner we stop doing so, the better off we’ll be. And the better others will understand us.
There is another factor. Diaspora Latvians (through their collective strength in expressing a sense of necessary justice) have spent a great deal of time and energy making a specific case for overdue Western help. We have tried to illuminate our uniqueness—of history, place, time and circumstance—in a dossier that should not be cast aside for a careless media moment that, out of the blue, confuses issues. In real time, sentiment in the rest of Canada toward unending (Québec) French “aspirations” is less than enthusiastic. Latvian goals should not be coupled to this controversy in any way.
And still another factor: the constant argument of French-speaking Quebeckers has been that they are entitled to “special protection” (as per Bill 101) because their language is “drowning in a sea of English.” To that one can reply: it hasn’t drowned yet and, in fact, is stronger then it has ever been thanks to federal government policies and guarantees. Again, there is no comparison to genocidal Russian (and local quisling) policies that targeted the Latvian language and culture for eradication. We have no obligation to entertain a kinder, gentler version under the guise of human rights, or any formula that maintains the privileges of remaining occupants equal to (or even ahead of) those they have abused for too long. That would be gutlesness and suicide—and a fatal loss of self-respect.
Language, someone said, is oxygen. We need our intrinsic, undeniable share. There is no shortage of oxygen in Québec. It is not drowning by any measure. Latvians, on the other hand, may well be unless they reassert their uniqueness as they re-enter Europe. That will bring on another flood of languages—unlike anything Québec can (or is willing to) imagine.
So why does Madame President liken this special (provincial) case, an exemption from national norms, with our own (far more serious) problems, which the Latvian government is trying to correct with national norms? I’d like to know where the analogy lies. Is she suggesting that Latvia should treat its resident Russian non-citizens nationally as Québec treats resident non-Francophone Canadian citizens: provincially? How is this possible? Is the reverse perhaps that Latvians nationally need the same kind of “protection” francophone Quebeckers enjoy provincially? No comparison. Perhaps she envisages an eventual result: the exodus of several hundred thousand discontented Russians back to the floundering motherland Russian President Vladimir Putin has invited them to rebuild. Fine and good. Eminently desirable. But Latvia is nobody’s province any longer and should stop thinking and acting like one—as though faraway (perhaps too-familiar) “examples” may justify what we must do for ourselves, in our unique circumstances. Let us not coattail along on somebody else’s feeble excuses for discrimination when our self-determination calls for actions that are completely different and crystal-clear.
Maybe it was a dimwit speechwriter, a researcher too lazy to get past the first few easy Web hits and establish context for many kinds of language laws, or a “briefer” enticed by superficial similarities ahead of substance. Maybe, Madame President, it was your own experience and how you perceived things to be. Yes, there is enormous pressure to respond time after time. But, please, do not say in the face of overwhelming evidence that protection of Latvian in Latvia is (can be, should be) modeled on protection of French in Québec and in Canada. It cannot, and should not be. Shorthand like this, while handy for sound bites, is slippery and dangerous. Remove it from your otherwise excellent and inspiring repertoire.
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