North of the Border

Montreal’s Lachine Canal in autumn. Photo by Artur Staszewski on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

J’aime Montréal!

I spent my first few days here figuring out How Canada Works, as least as far as the mundane details of life go.  Now I’m pretty well settled in.  Spending loonies & toonies as appropriate.  Asking for cheese in “gramme” units (and in ever-improving French!).  Riding the metro like any regular person who knows how the card readers work.

Then there have been more complex things to take in, like the political landscape. 

My husband and I arrived in Montreal on the eve of Quebec’s provincial elections.  As we pulled up to our apartment building for the first time and started to unload our boxes, a procession of students came down the street banging pots and pans, shouting “Villeray désobé!”  Political posters near our building had been defaced.  Neighbors flew fleur-de-lys flags from their balconies.  The next day Pauline Marois of the Parti Québécois (the Quebec sovereignty party) won the election, someone apparently tried to assassinate her and ended up killing someone else, and people were wondering if another Quebec sovereignty referendum would be introduced.

Sign on boulevard Saint-Laurent.

Canadians seem ready to engage in discourse about American politics at a moment’s notice.  Yet we Americans, genrally speaking, choose to remain in a state of ignorance about Canada.  During the chaotic events of election week, I tried to fill in gaps in my own understanding by asking questions and reading all I could about current affairs.  I don’t feel provincial politics or linguistic conflicts in my bones as someone from Quebec might — I remain a neutral bystander.  But at least now I have a better context for the things that happen.

(For instance, I had heard about the student protests before arriving — but I did not know about the “casseroles” or about Bill 78.)

I suppose this process of learning how Canada works is the whole point of Fulbright and its cross-cultural exchange mission.  Here I can set aside all the classic Problems in American History for a moment to consider paths not taken and other ways of being.  It’s an opportunity I feel lucky to have.

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