On home, bilingualism, and dogs

The holidays are a time for reflection. It’s a well-worn cliche, but I think that most people do indulge in a bit of introspection this time of year, especially if you live, like I do, in a place where winter weather forces you into a state of semi-hibernation. Especially if you are, like I am, home-bound by the first snowstorm of the season (curse you, weather gods!).

I live in Quebec, a province that has seen its share of tumult over the past two years. We are a French enclave in an English/Spanish continent, a source of constant social tension between the Francophone majority and the English and Allophone minorities. I won’t go into the gory details, but let’s just say the current political scene bears a striking resemblance to that of Berlin circa the 1930s. I wish I was exaggerating. So the question that’s been hanging over my head like the blade of a guillotine this year is whether I want to stay in a place where the political leaders privilege one language/culture over the rest.

Montreal has been my home my entire life, except for the one year I fulfilled all of my prim and proper anglophile fantasies by studying in England. It’s artsy. It’s historic. It’s multicultural. The countryside is near, if that’s your thing. The mountains are near, if that’s your thing. I feel safer walking its streets than in any other city I’ve ever visited – including rural southern Ontario towns. I love my neighborhood, a melange of rich and poor, hipsters and closet suburbanites, blue collar families and business folk, where everything I need is within walking distance and the downtown core is only a bus ride away. But what I love best about my neighborhood, my city, my province is the very thing that’s tearing it apart: language issues.

What I really wanted to talk about today was dogs. Don’t worry, it’s all going to come together in the end. I have a little Pemmie – aka a tri-colored Pembroke Welsh Corgi – who is the light of my life. This will not be the last time I mention her. Something I learned while she was training me (okay, so the second thing I learned after ‘dogs train you, you don’t train them’) is that dogs don’t have an agenda. They are true innocents. They have wants like any other creature – food, affection, exercise, sleep – and they are not above being sneaky to get those things, but the rest is remarkably black and white. They take the world as it comes. You have to work to make a dog aggressive; I don’t believe they start out that way. When they meet another dog, they like them or they don’t: the end.

You would think dog-walking in a city with language tensions would be problematic, but no. Somehow, when it comes to the dogs we adore, it doesn’t matter if you’re French or English – or Russian, or Portuguese, or Japanese, or Muslim, or whathaveyou. I have never once met a foreign language-speaking dog owner who was rude to me. I am bilingual, but with a slight accent when I speak French. In a city where people develop ‘language radar’, I stand out as an Anglophone. My fellow dog owners and I still do the awkward dance around ‘What language will we speak to each other?’ – a daily occurrence here in Montreal – but once we figure out the steps, our conversation finds a rhythm. Our dogs, as with any pair of pet owners, are our common ground. It’s easy to respect someone who loves what you love.

Why is it so much harder to respect someone with a difference in opinion, life experience, religious practice, upbringing? Why does something as essential and valuable as language divide us? Why can’t we embrace both English and French, cherishing the fact that bilingualism makes us stronger, smarter, richer, more cultured? Why does the best thing about this province have to bring out the worst in its people?

Thanks to humans, there are dozens of types of dogs, and most of them get along just fine. This issue, this province, its conflicts are anything but black and white, I know. But as the year comes to a close, and I once again consider leaving this city that I love, I can’t help but think that we could do worse than look for answers at the dog park.

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