Two Solitudes?

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

I grew up in a border town, in a border generation. One side of the river was majority French, the other English. My elders held tight to decidedly parochial views about their respective cultures. The English felt the ascendancy of their language (and subsequent control over business, government and education) was an inevitable and unavoidable result of their conquest of French Canada in 1760. The French, on the other hand, used their language as a cultural badge of courage, an undying assertion that they had never been conquered in spirit.

During the 1960s and 1970s an intense and occasionally violent cultural revival swept the French-speaking province of Quebec. Language became a weapon, leveraging access to public and private services.

Many of these reforms were necessary, long past due. Pierre Trudeau, the bi-cultural, bilingual Prime Minister at the time, had agitated for social justice in his youth. He was, nonetheless, a strong federalist, and opposed growing cries for Quebec’s secession from the Canadian confederation of provinces.

Vanuatu and Canada’s respective histories reveal more than a few parallels. Though different in detail, many common themes emerge. In Vanuatu, French and English camps were pitted against one another in the run-up to Independence, with the largely English Lini camp charging full-blown toward freedom and numerous, largely French-speaking, elements advocating a go-slowly (or not at all) approach.

In the years following his victory, PM Lini was often wont to display his pique at his opponents. His Economist obituary mentions his apparent glee at sending at least one French diplomat packing.
The curious, often absurd duplication of services that characterised the British/French ‘Pandaemonium’ was a perfect example of the intransigence of cultures when they are pitted against one another. The two colonial Powers, ostensibly allies, were incapable of seeing eye to eye on even the most trivial administrative matters.

The common – and often vociferous – claims that the French actively supported Jimmy Stevens’ stillborn Republic of Vemarana only added fuel to a fire that had been guttering and smoking for years.

Notwithstanding its strengths, French’s permanent minority status here in Vanuatu has certainly allowed the perpetuation of some of the same kinds of injustice seen in Quebec in past generations. French has often received less attention than it should. The demonstrably superior education system has not received the recognition it deserves. The use of French in law, in government services and publications is often an afterthought.

Given my personal experience living on the cusp between two cultures, I am naturally sympathetic to Education Minister Charlot Salwai’s efforts to increase the French component in the core curriculum. Having benefited from a completely bilingual education, and having experienced the consequent benefits of a more nuanced, more cosmopolitan view of the world, I can only consider his plan to be a good thing.

That said, I am vividly conscious as well of the potential for division that language issues can create. In Canada in 1970, Quebec separatists conducted a series of murders, kidnappings and bombings that resulted in the imposition of martial law and the arbitrary arrest of thousands of activists, most of whom were guilty of nothing more than caring about their culture.

(On a more personal note, my fluency in both languages got me out of a few scrapes when some local yobbo wanted to pick a fight with a ‘frog’ or vice versa.)

Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that Minister Salwai’s latest education policy proposals are going to result in fisticuffs in the school yard. It’s nonetheless true that on either side of the cultural divide a reactionary tendency exists that often makes dialogue a little more tense than it needs to be.

Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau dealt with the problem with a characteristic display of deftness. He rejected the famous contention that Canada was populated by ‘two solitudes’ incapable ever of truly communicating with one another. In its place he instated a policy of multiculturalism.

Vanuatu should take the same approach. In every important respect, it is the opposite of a monolithic cultural entity. In addition to older French and English traditions, we receive distinct inputs from other Pacific Islands and China, to say nothing of the deep and fruitful integration of the local Vietnamese community.

And of course, at the heart of it all lie the dozens of distinct and varied cultures that make Vanuatu such a unique amalgam of all that’s good in Melanesia.

For whatever it’s worth: If Vanuatu were not such a cosmopolitan place, it’s doubtful I would have found it as appealing as I do. I know I’m not alone in this sentiment.

Minister Salwai should be applauded for his efforts to transpose some of the undeniable successes of the French system onto its decidedly challenged English counterpart. But as he does so, he must remain constantly, vividly aware that language reaches to the root of everyone’s identity.

To speak differently is quite literally to think differently.

Defenders of English and French alike, take note: Education should celebrate diversity, building unity through understanding. Minister Salwai’s effort to achieve this deserve everyone’s support.