|Montreal, March 2, 2002 / No 99|
by Harry Valentine
Throughout known human history, people have been recognised on the basis of tribal, ethnic, religious or cultural affiliation. The history of human conflict is also based on cultural affiliation, in which one group of people tries to assert dominance or superiority over another group. Empires were founded on the basis of cultural identification, where the dominant group regarded themselves as having some form of divine right to rule other groups. The subjugation of native peoples in North and South America, as well as in parts of Africa and Asia, were enacted in the name of the perceived superiority and inferiority of cultures.
The history of inter-cultural harmony, peace and mutually beneficial co-existence
traces back to the ancient Phoenicians and is based on the concept of freedom
of exchange. Such exchange and trade developed and evolved outside of the
sphere of political or religious influence. Free people engaging in free
trade allowed people of vastly different religious, cultural and political
backgrounds to realise benefit from each other. This benefit was realised
as a result of recognising that there was more to be gained from living
in peace than from military invasion. Free people living in a safe and
secure environment invariable seek ways to express some forms of creativity
or ingenuity. The products of that creativity and ingenuity, be they in
the form of artworks, trinkets, pieces of jewelry, often had exchange value
in the marketplaces of the ancient world.
The age of empire building involved one nation invading another nation to plunder its wealth and resources and enslave its citizens. Rome's invasion of Egypt and Britain's rule of Egypt, India and much of Africa followed this pattern. This undermined but did not totally annihilate all aspects of the distinctive cultures of the occupied nations. Many of the distinctive aspects of cultures across Africa and Asia survived the British and European colonial era, despite the racial oppression administered by colonial rule. Some aspects of the native cultures of Central and South America survived the brutal Spanish and Portuguese occupations. The cultural heritage and practices of numerous North American Native peoples were practically decimated after the cultural invasions from Britain, France and Spain. Despite the often brutal oppression and genocide enacted against native cultures, some aspects of their culture survived and is being revived and rediscovered at the present day.
Canada's coexisting cultures
When Canada built the trans-continental railway, large numbers of Chinese workers were employed. Despite oppressive government policies toward them, many distinct aspects of Chinese culture survived in North America. Chinatown districts are a historical part of most major centers in Canada and the USA. Their culture survived decades of an absence of any form of governmental cultural protection. The French culture and language survived for generations in the New Orleans area of the USA , in parts of Manitoba and Atlantic Canada (the Acadians) without any governmental cultural support. Later cultural arrivals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the Italians and the Irish, also saw their culture survive for generations without any government cultural support.
The diverse cultures which came to North America co-existed in harmony as a result the recognition and acceptance of certain rights and freedoms which allowed for the development of productive commercial relationships. People were free to peacefully exchange goods and services for their mutual benefit. The cosmopolitan melting-pot that characterized early 20th century America, as well as parts of Canada during that period, may actually have helped preserve the distinctive cultural heritages. During classical times, inter-cultural harmony resulted from freedom of exchange amongst people from a diversity of cultures. In any major North American city, most of the customers of Chinese or Italian restaurants are usually people from other cultural backgrounds. This is a form of voluntary support, recognition, acceptance and respect for something from a different culture. It is an example of a voluntary and private multi-cultural policy that has worked for generations and in an absence of political participation. It is proof that the cosmopolitan melting-pot policy of separation of culture and state actually does work well to promote harmony among a vast diversity of cultures.
Most big cities across Canada and the USA have a "little Greece," a "little Italy," a "Chinatown" as well as numerous other ethnic communities. Even Montreal is home to people from a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, foreign cultures which survived Quebec's compulsory French language policy aimed at protecting the French culture. Until some decades ago, many French Canadians perceived themselves as being an oppressed people. Most were employed mainly in blue-collar jobs and had little room for advancement. But despite the cultural oppression and an absence of government cultural protection for decades, the French language and French culture survived for generations.
Quebec's pioneering culture
The perception of an oppressed people persisted until two very significant events occurred in French Quebec society. The first was the revolt against the Catholic church and many of its sacred teachings by Quebec's younger generation. The second was that large numbers of young Quebecers obtained a university-level education that was not available to earlier generations. By the late 1990's, a very large high-tech and information sector had developed in Quebec's economy, centered around Montreal's West Island and employing tens of thousands of mainly university educated French Canadian professionals. This is a very significant sector of the Quebec's society and economy. Quebec's economic future is now in the hands of and being guided by this multitude of educated Francophone professionals. This segment of Quebec's population is also bringing about a new cultural evolution in the province. Their numbers are high enough and their influence powerful enough that they have become a critical mass facilitating cultural change, irrespective of political dictates.
Quebec's cultural heritage began with a pioneering generation of settlers who had the courage to leave political and cultural oppression in France. Despite the challenges and hardships they encountered, they struggled against almost insurmountable odds to created a new life in a difficult and hostile environment in a new land. Quebec's contemporary cultural reawakening only really began during the early 1970's, after French Canadians rebelled against religious indoctrination. This re-emerging and developing culture in modern Quebec is a pioneering culture in which people are successfully managing the challenges and adversities of living in this new information age. This is one of the hallmarks of a vibrant, dynamic and growing culture. It was created by the people themselves and not by the state. The province's political and economic future depends on this new cultural evolution and the values and beliefs it now stands for.
Several of Quebec's traditionalists and separatists hold the view that their culture is being invaded and is in danger of being annihilated, mainly by English Canada. Quebec's compulsory French language laws were aimed at preserving the French language and preventing this perceived cultural annihilation. The recent rise in the use of the English language around Montreal is evidence that Quebec's language laws are failing. Despite the increased use of English in and around Montreal, a dynamic and vibrant culture created by French Canadians is simultaneously evolving in the Montreal area. Quebecers want their children to be fully bilingual and able to function effectively in the modern, evolving global economy. This new Quebec culture shares important aspects and values with that of Quebec's founding settlers: the pioneering spirit to create something new and of worthwhile value in a challenging and uncertain environment.
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