September 2022

Contents Related Letters

Re: “As We Know It,” by Ian Smillie

In the to and fro between Tawfiq S. Rangwala’s What WE Lost, his book-length defence of the WE Charity fiasco, and Ian Smillie’s perceptive review of it, some broader contextual points bear mention.

A high-flying but superficial charity would not have reached the heights it did had it not been for the wider malaise in our midst on questions of international development. As Smillie aptly puts it, “Ending poverty is not child’s play. If it were, it would have happened long ago.” But many Western governments, ours included, appear to treat it this way. The international development portfolio in the federal cabinet is mostly a “rounding off” decision for politicians on their way up or down (ten different ministers in twenty years). In either case, there is not the expertise, interest, or sustained attention to the subject at the highest levels. Little wonder that WE’s international work, widely held in low esteem among development professionals, did not figure into Ottawa’s decision-making process to award the charity a large sole-sourced contract. There is no evidence that the development arm of Global Affairs Canada was consulted. Had it been, little would have turned up, because WE relied primarily on private sources of funding, so there was no trail of assessments, as would have been the case had large and sustained amounts of government monies been involved.

These private sources merit reflection too. In addition to the full-page ads for Rangwala’s book, there were full-page ads signed by WE’s funders defending the charity during the crisis. It is possible that these high-powered, high-net-worth individuals know something about the process of development and poverty reduction that the rest of us have missed. Or it might be that reputations are at stake. The thought that they have either supported potential wrong-doing or been taken for chumps usually does not go down well with this demographic.

Finally, with sustained cuts in media organizations, foreign coverage has suffered, particularly of developing countries. Canadians’ knowledge of global issues beyond war and pestilence is a function of this state of affairs. Foreign aid levels are overestimated and support for international cooperation is grudging and often tinged with perceptions about waste and corruption in far‑off places. The long arc of institution building, capacity development, and good governance leading to shared prosperity is not well served by spotty coverage of the here-and-now crisis.

There is indeed, as Smillie states, “a gap in the story.” It is the gap in our political economy and public consciousness that relegates questions of international development and cooperation to the recesses in which the likes of WE soar — and sometimes crash.

Rohinton Medhora

Re: “Miracle Grow,” by Graham Fraser

Graham Fraser has done me the great honour of reviewing my book Le miracle québécois. As one would expect of him, the review is well written and informative. I can think of no greater satisfaction than to be favourably reviewed by one of English Canada’s leading intellectuals (books in French too often go unnoticed outside Quebec).

Fraser nicely summarizes my book’s basic thrust: the (miraculous) transformation of a once-dominated society full of self-doubt into what is today one of the most free, self-confident, and socially progressive societies on the planet. Fraser is not wrong in making this remarkable success story — and the rebirth of French as the language of social advancement — the focus of his review. In doing so, however, he tells only half the book’s story.

There is nothing wrong with using a review to advance a message, and Fraser clearly has one. In a nutshell: “Quebec is doing just fine” and so is the French language; François Legault’s alarmist oratory as premier is an unjustified and regrettable return to inward-looking nationalism. This viewpoint is entirely defensible, shared by many, especially outside Quebec. Bill 96 (the province’s new language legislation, which strengthens Bill 101) is indeed open to criticism and unnecessarily petty. But when, in his opening paragraphs, Fraser presents my book as “an impressive correction” to Legault’s pessimistic (“a glass that is not only half empty but leaking”) view of Quebec’s linguistic future, he goes beyond my thinking. Yes, my intention in writing the book was to counter French Quebec’s perennial existential angst. But my intention was not to announce that French requires no further protection. If I may be allowed to quote myself in translation, I write in my conclusion: “Does the undeniable success of Bill 101 . . . signify that the battle for French in Quebec is won? No, the battle will never be definitely won. It’s part of being Québécois.” (I’d note that Legault endorsed my book on social media. Fraser and the premier certainly do not see the same message.)

I wrote my book for francophone readers, for whom the not always happy story of the French language in Canada needs little explanation. The positive story needed to be told. I left many things unsaid that would have required further explanation were I writing for an anglophone audience. Just take the name “Québécois,” which, as most francophones know, is the outcome of a loss, an abandonment, a second best. An anecdote comes to mind: Working my student job in the summer of 1967, in the Eastern Townships, I interviewed numerous farmers and asked questions on the ethnic makeup of their town or village. Invariably, they responded: “X percent canadiens, X percent anglais.” The concept of “Québécois” had not yet entered the vocabulary. Even my mother-in-law, in Lévis, referred to herself as canadienne and to others as anglais until her death.

The story I tell is that of the nation founded by those first Europeans (and others who would follow) who settled on the shores of the St. Lawrence in the seventeenth century. That budding nation — caught between three empires that did not wish it well — had to constantly adapt and learn in order to survive, eventually abandoning its continental dream and retreating to its final redoubt, where it still had a chance of building a society in its image. But let us return to the present: the continuing decline of French outside Quebec, which I fear the new Official Languages Act will do little to stop, is a constant reminder of its fragility on this continent, to which one can add the irrepressible rise of English in all spheres of life, which the advent of the digital era further accelerated. This is something the authors of Bill 101 could not have foreseen.

In politics, perception is what matters. In a recent survey, francophone Quebecers were asked, “Is the French language in Quebec threatened?” Some 75 percent of them said yes, compared with less than half in the mid-1990s.

Whatever one may otherwise think of Legault, he clearly had to do something or look like he was doing something. Bill 96 has been condemned by nationalists (who wanted Bill 101 extended to the cégep system) for not going far enough and, equally predictably, by Anglo community leaders for going too far. Even with the notwithstanding clause, it is doubtful that the legislation will survive intact in the courts. In this, it typifies Quebec’s (impossible) balancing act of ensuring the continued primacy of French — and so perceived — while also protecting the rights of English speakers. I’m glad not to be the minister responsible. As Fraser rightly points out near the end of his review, Quebec’s real miracle is the continued peaceful cohabitation of its two language groups. The earlier unequal relationship could have produced a bitter and vengeful nationalism, but it did not.

The best rampart against petty nationalism is cultural security. History teaches us (Fraser cites my Vienna example) that things start to go wrong when a national group perceives itself as under threat. Canada, fortunately, is far from the ethnic conflicts of Old Europe. However, the growing unequal relationship between English and French, both in and outside Quebec, will require us to rethink how we view language. If the Quebec miracle is to endure, the rest of Canada has a role to play, which may mean sometimes deviating from the principle of equal language rights.

Mario Polèse

Re: “The Ramble,” by J. L. Granatstein

Jack Granatstein has published a book review in which he criticizes a writer for poor research and then (we absolutely kid you not) discusses the author’s student reviews on Rate My Professors. Be better, Literary Review of Canada.

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Re: “Disrupted Rhythms,” by Marlo Alexandra Burks

A perfect articulation of the unease that I feel whenever I think about the fact that, currently, higher education leaves students woefully under-prepared for the many crises they will have to face. Back-to-school September (and all that it entails) had always been my favourite time of the year, and I’m sad they don’t get the same experience.

Christin B.
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Re: “Bright Yonge Things,” by John Lorinc

Very pleased to see The Heart of Toronto reviewed in the latest issue of the Literary Review of Canada ! (Also very pleased they didn’t ask J. L. Granatstein to read it, given his mean-spirited little review a few pages earlier.)

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