So close, yet so far away

Holy cow! What a vote that was in Canada.
Speaking as one who is terribly fond of our neighbors, both north and south, I must confess that for me Canada has the additional charm of being the perfect polar opposite of Texas.

In addition to affection, respect, concern, and goodwill, that wonderful country regularly provokes me to hysterical laughter simply by being so...Canadian. I swear, their national motto is: "Now, let's not get excited."

Understatement is their national art form.
Canada has just escaped dissolution by the proverbial hair; it was within a whisker of the Canadian equivalent of the War Between the States--secession, Fort Sumter, the works. But being a people possessed of commendable phlegm, instead of four years of ghastly bloodshed, they made 40 arrests and then they all went home. O Canada.

I know it's difficult for Americans to understand why Quebec would want to secede from Canada; our usual reaction is: "Huh? They out of their minds or what?"

I'm afraid that this reflects rather more on our ignorance than on their inscrutability. Poor things--having us for neighbors must be like living next door to the Simpsons.

The first thing to remember about Canada's experience with multiculturalism and bilingualism is that it bears little relation to our own. If you try to find parallels in their national experience and ours, you wind up doing a grave disservice to the very differences that make Canada unique.

For example, if you were tuned to Canadian Broadcasting on Monday night, you must have been bewildered after the speech by Jacques Parizeau, the premier of Quebec, who has since announced his resignation. No sooner had Parizeau left the podium than there was a distinctly un-Canadian outburst of indignation.

Well! said the commentators. Divisive. Vindictive. Frankly racist. Parizeau has just snatched moral defeat from the jaws of moral victory. Disgraceful demagoguery.

And you were sittin' there sayin': "What'd I miss? What'd he say?"
What you missed was Parizeau's use of a code phrase, "ethnic vote."
OK, so it's not Mark Fuhrman-caliber racism, but by Canadian standards, them's fightin' words.

The "ethnic vote," on which Parizeau blamed the narrow loss of the independistas, means all the Quebecers who are not French-Canadian. Since Quebecers who are not of French descent also consider themselves loyal Quebecers, this was a big-time insult--as though, say, some Tejano pol announced that no Texan who is not Hispanic is a real Texan. (Pardon the parallel.)

As both a Francophone (listening to the CBC improves the vocabulary) and a Francophile, I shall attempt to explain why it is that so many Quebecers want independence, but I'm not sure I can do their cause justice. As is true of all minority populations, what they want most is respect. Dignity. Recognition. Besides, in Anglo Canada, adults voluntarily eat oatmeal, a revolting fact that no French person should be expected to put up with.

As a commentator for NPR explained, the Quebec independence movement is primarily a matter of heart and soul, and English Canada keeps responding with facts and logic and lots of boring drivel about how bad it would be for the national economy. As the commentator noted, there is something condescending about this approach, as though it were addressing a bunch of unreasonable children.

Fortunately, at the last minute, with the country's future in the balance, English Canadians had an un-Canadian fit of sentiment themselves and turned out by the tens of thousands in the streets to beg the Quebecers not to vote for independence. We're talking high passion here, Canadian-style.

Just to give you a sense of how failure-to-communicate can lead to this kind of nation-destroying set-to, the CBC translators did a wretched job on election night, giving us a stiff, jerky, word-for-word version of what the French-speaking politicians were saying. ABC had no trouble locating a translator who gave the flavor and the passion of those addresses.

Of course, my favorite part of all the speeches in both English and French was when the leaders urged the people to calm down. "Soyez calme, soyez calme, let us remain calm," they all pleaded. Talk about coals to Newcastle.

As one of Canada's many American well-wishers, I congratulate its people on having saved their country. They are all agreed that the status quo will not do, and they are now embarked on a search for a new federal system that will give Quebec more autonomy.

I am certain that they will conduct this difficult and sometimes painful process in a staid, sensible, and calm fashion.

I wonder how we can get Texans to eat more oatmeal.
As a serious fan of the perfect and utter weirdness of the GOP congressional freshmen, I am reminded of Ann Richards' observation concerning the decline of values in this country. "There was a time in this great country," said Annie, "when the word 'crackpot' really meant something."

Now, setting aside your more notorious freshman crackpots, like Helen Chenowith of Idaho and Texas' own Steve Stockman (both fans of the right-wing militia groups), consider the more pedestrian freshman crackpots. Here's an earnest individual named Sam Brownback from Kansas repeating my favorite GOP freshman theme: of the GOP budget, he said to The Wall Street Journal: "It's real change, though not near as much as it should be. The old culture has not passed away." He refers to the oft-declared freshman desire to "change the way Washington does business" or to "change the culture of Washington."

To anyone but a GOP freshman, the notion that the Republican budget represents "a real change in the way Washington does business" is enough to set off howls of mirth. Or howls of something. In the very same Wall Street Journal, we find a handy roundup on the latest special tax favors for corporations included in the bill that is supposed to "change the way Washington does business." Gosh, how different.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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Molly Ivins