Thursday, November 12, 2009

Impressions from Montréal on Remembrance Day

Canada looks like one of the most secure parts of the world, a cornerstone that isn't swayed by the troubles rocking ordinary countries. I'm touching wood as I write this, for I really wish the country and its people(s) all the best after the good time I just had there. Here only a few impressions.

Except for the inside of some conference halls in Toronto and the Niagara Falls, I had never seen anything of Canada. Now I just got back home from a week in Montréal, where I attended the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion and of the Dharma Association of North America. This amazing megalopolis seems to combine the best of Europe and America. It is safe and relaxed and full of activity, and seems to be a rare counterargument against the now-widespread feeling that multiculturalism is a hopeless dead end. The numerous Haitian taxi-drivers and service personnel are the most visible face of Québec's policy of attracting immigrants from French-speaking countries. Which implies that as a citizen of Belgium and fluent in French, I could make a similar move: walk on water to Acadia!

The conference was a major affair, an intense concatenation of numerous parallel and successive sessions with thousands of scholars attending. Apart from the actual academic brainstorming, there were some entertaining talks by star intellectuals, esp. Tariq Ramadan (barred from last year's conference in Chicago when the US authorities denied him a visa) and Slavoj Zizek. The congress centre was in the Chinese neighbourhood and could be reached through underground routes from my hotel, which was located next to the Rue Sainte-Cathérine. The latter is referred to in a well-known pop song, Complainte pour Sainte-Cathérine by Kate & Anna McGarrigle: "Moi je me promène sous Sainte-Cathérine, j'profite de la chaleur du métro... quand il fait trente en d'sous d'zéro" ("I'm walking underneath Sainte-Cathérine, profiting from the underground's warmth... when it's 30 centigrade below zero"). No need for the underground, though: after a few freezing days, temperature jumped up to 18° and stayed there till after I left: the fabled Indian summer, "une saison qui n'existe que dans le nord de l'Amérique". So I got a quick introduction to all I need to know for bluffing my way through a Canada conversation.

It was easy enough for me to curry favour with the Québecois, standing out between all those Americans as the only one to address them in French. They especially liked my assurance that in Belgium, everyone supports their cause: the Walloons because they are French-speaking, the Flemish because they side with the underdog. I'm not sure, though, that Québecois visiting Brussels would side with the Flemish underdog.

The really touching discovery for me was how serious Canadians take Remembrance Day. From a week before, most of them wear poppies reminding of Flanders' Fields. The author of the WW1 poem In Flanders' fields, John McCrae, was indeed Canadian. By contrast, in the country where it all happened, and where the poppies still grow on Canadian soldiers' graves, row on row, interest is limited to strictly official ceremonies without popular resonance. For Anglo-Saxons, it is a day to commemorate sacrifice and victory, for us a day to contemplate the senseless pity of war. That is why the Yser Tower, the Flemish war monument in WW1 site Diksmuide, carries the caption No More War, a testimony to post-war pacifist zeal rather than to the war psychology of triumphalism c.q. vengeance.

Only the quaint minority of Belgian royalists try to make 11 November a victory celebration, but the fact is that the then Belgian king kept his army out of the great offensives, until 1918 merely standing guard behind the flooded Yser plain that prevented further German advances, then only releasing his forces for the final American-backed offensive (not to mention his secret attempt to reach a separate peace with the Kaiser). That's why Albert 1, our "king-soldier", was so popular with his soldiers: he didn't ask them to die for their country. By contrast, the Commonwealth, that was only dragged into the war because our king's cousin on the British throne wouldn't tolerate Germany's "rape of Belgium", intended to drive the Germans back, and in this endeavour sacrificed hundreds of thousands of soldiers' lives in futile offensives. Logical then that their commemoration of all those wasted heroes is far more serious than the artifical patriotic hoompapa of the Belgian royalists.

Nonetheless, for me it was a good time of the year to introduce myself as a Fleming, born and raised moreover in Leuven/Louvain. That was WW1's martyr town where the university library was destroyed by German fire, in Commonwealth propaganda the symbol of the destruction of civilization by the "furor Teutonicus". To Canadians, a Flemish visitor must look like those poppies invoked on Remembrance Day celebrations: a sign of life living on after the slaughter.

1 comment:

Ghost Writer said...

Dr. Elst,

Great to see that you have spent some time in the great, white (meaning the snow not the ‘aryan’ race) north - which is also home to quite a few of the Hindu community.

I generally agree with the achievements of Canadian society, particularly the large imprint of French Canada in public life (that among other things is visible in socialized health care). However, some unsavory aspects must be pointed out to correct the idyllic picture you paint.

1. Canadian multiculturalism has its flaky aspects. For a decent, slightly conservative critique of the Canadian way – refer the book “Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada “ by Neil Bissondath (an English professor and a nephew of V.S Naipaul’s)
2. Canadian multi-culturalism is secure, but should not be taken for granted. Quebec had the Bouchard-Taylor commission to define what would be reasonable accommodation to immigrants. While the report did not provide any revolutionary ideas, the public city-hall meetings created a lot of heat (though not much light). Folks in small town Canada, particularly Quebec, feel their values are threatened. To the extent that Herouxville actually created a code of its own (,_Quebec). The code is modeled on the French “secular fundamentalism” and deprives people some rights (e.g. Burka and carrying of the Sikh Kirpan), but does not outlaw Catholic religious symbols. It should be pointed out that the code is not legally enforceable and will likely be held to be violating the Canadian charter of Rights, if challenged.
3. Canada also suffers from a watered-down version of the Eurabia problem. This is especially true in the major, metropolitan cities. For e.g. in the beautiful west coast city of Vancouver, the Sikhs are a major presence. This manifests itself in an annual Vaisakhi parade, which attracts every local WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) and even some Chinese-origin politicians. They dress up duly in Punjabi clothes, say “Sat Sri Akal” and even pay reverence to the Granth Sahib. Vancouver’s former mayor, the very popular Sam Sullivan even learnt Punjabi ( The problem is that these same politicians will never be seen singing Christmas carols for fear of being seen as white-racists. Matters are not helped by ethnic communities voting as a vote-block sometimes. The last liberal party leader, Stephane Dion got there because his opponent Bob Rae criticized the Air India terrorist bombing of 1985. It had the effect of getting Dion nearly all the Sikh delegates (the Khalistani supporting ones anyway) which won him the election, though Rae was clearly the better candidate. Local whites feel exasperated – just like the Hindus in India feeling that democracy is subverted by Muslim vote blocks.
4. A major blot on the Canadian record is how it has become home to global terror networks (mostly among the Sikh, Tamil and Islamic diasporas). The enabler for this is certainly the supine, politically correct multiculturalism. The two books to read for this are Stewart Bell’s ( and Kim Bolan’s ( Bell’s is the intellectually more accomplished book. A few more years of this sort of “multiculturalism” and things will not be very rosy for inter-community relationships.

Another lingering problem is resentment about Canada being a British dominion and hence ‘ruled’ by the Queen of England. Only last week Montreal had a mini-riot to protest the visit of Prince Charles and Camilla. All this being said, Canada has done very well to accommodate Quebec separateness (I no longer call it separatism), into the national narrative. Perhaps Canada can be a model case for how nation-states can overcome bitter memories and the legacy of violence to create a genuinely harmonious co-existence.