Archive | September, 2014

Party Like It’s 1995?

17 Sep

The extensive news coverage of tomorrow’s Scottish referendum brings back vivid memories of Quebec’s 1995 referendum. What’s so compelling about this one – like ours – is that the results are too close to predict. It’s a true cliffhanger in today’s world of instant polls, social media, and too many commentators pushing themselves on to too many platforms.

Also then, 19 years ago, the polls were not decisive, though on the “No” side we were preparing for defeat. I was 16 and not eligible to vote. During the turbulent weeks leading up to the referendum though, I felt I was living history, that my world and the world would change dramatically, whatever the results of that fateful vote.


A campaign poster for the “No” side, 1995.

My community, the Anglophone Jewish community of Montreal, had slowly waned for two decades, since the nationalist movement in Quebec strengthened and the provincial government instituted language laws aimed at making French the dominant language and relegating English to the sidelines. Without a doubt, virtually all Montreal Jews voted no.

Many of my friends’ families planned to leave should the “Oui” campaign win. I kept a count of who would be left in Montreal the day after. I was one of the few who would. At the time, Anglophones feared English would vanish and that we would lose whatever cultural rights we had fought to retain. Opportunities for the children would vanish as French would become the principal language. A new, independent economy would falter at best and plummet at worst, resulting in fewer jobs. Already then, the head offices of large international and national companies had abandoned Montreal for Toronto or elsewhere.

Both my parents worked in family businesses, and my father’s was dependent on Montreal’s port for success. He would not lose customers if Quebec would separate, he told us.

On the eve of that October election, I was scared. I was also exhilarated at witnessing a political awakening in my midst for the first time. Normally, Canada is uneventful politically; you can ignore politics for most of your life with little consequence. But in the fall of 1995, no one was indifferent. People hung signs and stickers. Almost everyone I knew went to the enormous demonstration against separation, along with 100,000 others. a day that will be remembered in Canada’s – and Quebec’s – history as an apex of political engagement and national sentiment.

Despite the efforts and passion both sides put in, no one knew a few thousand votes would determine our fate.

If the “Yes” side had won, perhaps I would have enrolled to a university out-of-province instead of to McGill. I would have met different people. Perhaps my parents would have emigrated eventually. There would be fewer Jews and Anglophones in Quebec for sure. That’s not to mention the potential pitfalls and successes that may have come with secession, but that’s all theoretical. Personally, things may have changed in the short-term but in the long-term, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t live there anymore, regardless of the referendum’s outcome.

At the same time even without separation, I see that much has changed in Quebec in 19 years. Montreal is more French than bilingual, and many of my former classmates, friends and peers have emigrated to Anglophone cities.  A Quebecois friend, who 15 years ago was a staunch separatist, told me recently that there’s no need for independence anymore; Quebec has achieved what it had wanted all along: to be a distinct society.

As we await the results of Scotland’s historic vote tomorrow, I wonder what an independent Quebec would have looked like in 2014.





Three Points for Optimism

4 Sep

The war is over. I don’t have high expectations for a permanent end to the conflict, but a few recent developments have sparked glimmers of hope in me. Here is my optimistic indulgence:

1) Our new president, Reuven “Rubi” Rivlin, has come out as a powerful voice against the unprecedented  racism and incitement unleashed this summer.

Since Rubi entered the ceremonial position over a month ago, he has announced a multidisciplinary program to combat racism.

Israel's President Reuven "Rubi" Rivlin

Israel’s President Reuven “Rubi” Rivlin

On the 51st anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s infamous “I have a dream” speech, he wrote a powerful Facebook post about his vision for soccer without racism, including: “I dream and believe that if we are committed, our [soccer] fields will be the source of inspiration for change, where people will come to learn how to live together respectfully…”

Earlier this week, he vociferously condemned an initiative to cancel Arabic as one of Israel’s official languages. Even though Arabic is not as visible or official as it should be, the fact that it is official is an important vestige of pluralism and tolerance here.

Rubi said, “We have yet to understand that the struggle for our home takes place not only on the security front, but on the civilian front as well.”

When he served as Knesset Speaker, he was one of several Likudniks to counter anti-democratic legislation. Rubi’s inclination for democracy and freedom of speech is apparently one of the reasons some top politicians attempted to block him from the presidency.

We have to wait and see whether Rubi implements his plans.  In the meantime, his Facebook account has become a social phenomenon here, a beacon of reason amidst animosity and prejudice. Despite or perhaps because of his right-wing credentials, his words resonate strongly.

2) The new school year. As a mother, I am enjoying ‘back to school” as much as I did when I was a child. My oldest son and I went shopping this week for new folders, pens, markers, and crayons. Together, we peeled off the crisp plastic wrapping and stuck decorated name labels on his supplies. I love watching him boast his school uniform, ecstatic because he has moved up in life.

My youngest, too, has had a smooth transition so far to his new nursery. Every day, he giddily practices his Hebrew vocabulary and the names of his new friends.

After the miserable summer, I am clinging to these fresh starts, however temporary they may be.

3) Teapacks. Last weekend, Aharon and I attended an outdoor show by the band Teapacks in Jerusalem.  Musicians from the hardscrabble town of Sderot and the surrounding kibbutzes (Gaza border area) joined up 25 years ago “to blur the boundaries between different groups in Israel so that they can enjoy music together”. Teapacks (tipex) is the Hebrew term for white-out.

tipexTeapacks stands out as another voice for humanity in Israel; their humorous songs speak of the successes and struggles of regular people. Musically they pioneered a fusion of Western pop and Middle Eastern-style melodies. As a result, many Israelis from different backgrounds relate to Teapacks.

During the war, many Jewish Israelis spoke of how wonderful it was that we were “all” united in the war effort. For me, it was the most divisive period I have ever experienced. Our lives and the media overflowed with showdowns between right and left, Arabs and Jews, Ashkenazis and Mizrahim, Arsim and intellectuals (not to mention the war itself).

For the first time in a long time on Friday, I felt “unity”.  I enjoyed the lyrics and danced and sang to the band’s hits in unison with people of all sorts .

Click here for a video of the show.

We were happy. When a siren sounded as part of the song “Sami and Somo”, no one flinched (at least not outwardly) . One concertgoer waved an Israeli flag. I felt comfortable with it, that the flag represented me fully, not in a defensive, confrontational way.

May we only know good things.